His business is part sculpture, part performance

Marco Villarreal, the Vegas Iceman, carves a piece in his studio in Las Vegas, Nev. on Feb. 21, 2017.

The first time he saw an ice sculpture at an event, Marco Antonio Villarreal knew what he wanted to do with his life.

His sculptures are audacious enough, but Villarreal also incorporates performance into his art.

Describe your business.

The Vegas Iceman is a custom ice-sculpting company. Our calling is to perform live ice-sculpting shows. We combine the unique art of ice sculpting with live music, ice props and theatrical skits.

Who are your customers?

Most often, we work directly with event hosts, but we also are sought out by party planners, hotels’ catering departments, private caterers, destination management companies and talent agents looking to wow their guests. We create sculptures for corporate events, weddings, anniversary parties, grand openings, birthdays, quinceañeras and pretty much any other reason to celebrate.

What’s the most important part of your job?

It is important to remember that each sculpture is more than likely the first for the client. People give us the honor to be a part of their special day, and I make sure they have a lasting memory.

What is the hardest part about doing business in Las Vegas?

I’d love to tell you it’s the summer heat, but it’s not. When it is 110 degrees outside, I’m inside a 20-degree freezer grinding away. The looks I get when I walk outside the studio in full snowboarding gear are priceless.

For my company, the hardest part about doing business in Las Vegas is the seasonal conventions and tourism. Like many Las Vegas industries, a large part of our business is expos, conventions and major events. Some months are great — we will have bookings half a year out, plus getting orders on the day of the event. Other months are slower, so I take the downtime to refocus and open up new opportunities.

For example, this past month we started selling roses frozen into ice as personalized centerpieces. Customers can pick them up at our shop and have them engraved with names, phrases, etc. I get to hear some interesting stories and it’s fun to find out what people do out here. You never know who you are talking to in this city. It’s a great opportunity to connect and spread my art in smaller, more intimate atmosphere.

What obstacles has your business overcome?

We recently expanded into a larger studio that has doubled production and opened more space for rehearsals for our shows. With the growth came new obstacles, such as a power failure the night before a 20-foot logo ice wall was to be set. My mind was racing and my heart pounded as every minute passed, then — boom — power restored. I thanked the Lord and started thinking of backup plans.

Take us through how you construct an ice sculpture from start to finish.

We start by producing our own ice blocks using a reverse osmosis filtration system to make crystal clear ice. We use a machine that freezes the water in layers. We also agitate the water with circular pumps to keep air bubbles from becoming trapped during the freezing process. At harvest, ice blocks can weigh up to 300 pounds.

Typically, I sculpt inside the freezer. It allows me to focus on detailed, realistic features like faces and human anatomy. You can really push the limits when the ice doesn’t change form because of the heat and elements. Occasionally, I work outside the freezer to have some fun. I love reacting to the movement of the ice; the way it melts and softens, and the challenge of constantly changing my technique.

I start the sculpting process by applying a template or a free hand sketch on the ice. Using a chainsaw or router end mill, I remove the outer part of my design, staying true to my lines and silhouette. I set relief lines, then remove more ice, exposing layers to add depth or three dimensions. I go on to using a series of grinders, sanders and specialty bits and, lastly, fire to achieve a detailed polished finish.

Delivery is all about timing and insulating the sculpture properly. We like to set sculptures one to two hours before the event start time in order for the sculpture to properly temper. Depending on the design, we transport in multiple pieces, then assemble on-site. Some displays and ice bars weigh between 800 and 2,000 pounds. After the event, we return to take down the sculpture.

There are YouTube tutorials with over a million views on this topic, how do you choose what parts of your ice are cloudy, and what parts are crystal clear?

Our production process and equipment allow us to produce crystal clear blocks consistently. If we want a cloudy block, we simply shut the pump off. This adds more air into the block, increasing the melting rate. We also color blocks for special projects, but that another scientific formula in itself.

Do you have a favorite sculpture?

Two stand out.

One was a NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy display for Jimmie Johnson with an oversized replica championship ring. It was beautiful and took every ounce of technique I’ve ever learned to create it. It was so popular that his sponsor, Lowe’s Cos., hired me shortly after to rebuild the same display for another event.

The second was a live performance I did for Viking Cruises. It was a 7-foot-by-12-foot Viking on a dragon boat. I made my entrance to the stage as a drunken Viking cheering “skol,” toasting and saluting the guests with my beer stein sculpted out of ice. We revealed to the crowd the large display across the terrace and, to an “epic battle cry” playlist, I shaped, rounded and applied finishing details, then glazed the 1,800-pound ice statue with my blowtorch. Lastly, I froze an ice sword to the top of the statue, introduced “Mike the Vike,” and took my bow.

Talk about the ice drum set. Where did the idea for that come from?

I have played around on drums since I was a kid. I never took it too seriously; it was a fun way to make noise. I saw the ice drum concept years ago. I thought they were cool, but the set I saw didn’t have a working snare. You can’t replace the pop of a snare, so I set out to create my own. The first set worked great, except that as the drums melted, they would lose tune. When we would do a performance, we could only play them for a short time. After a few more prototypes, I’ve created an ice drum kit that will last three hours without having to retune.

I’ve had a lot of interest in seeing the ice drums live, so I recently added them to our ice performance packages.

Explain the live performance aspect of your business. Do you prefer performing live or working behind the scenes?

Our live performances are bursting with action and high energy. I focus on capturing techniques seen in the last 20 minutes of a professional ice-carving competition. I turn that it into a theatrical performance art using chainsaw, grinder and fire.

We understand that not every event is the same; as such, neither are our performances. Each performance, sculpture design and music are customized to fit the event’s theme and desired atmosphere.

Hands down, I prefer performing live. I love to take the theme of the event and create a character for each performance. I’ve had the opportunity to perform as a viking, the Grinch, Elvis Presley, a race car driver, winter lord and Capt. Spaulding.

Have you ever had a sculpture shatter or melt at an inopportune time?

Ice is temperamental if you don’t pay attention to the elements around you. If a sculpture changes temperature too fast, it goes into a thermo shock and fractures.

Once, I was building a display and the bottom two slabs of the ice on the pallet snapped in half during transport. Luckily, it was a clean break, so I was able to weld the broken slabs together with some cold water and slush snow.

What’s the strangest, funniest, or most awesome request you’ve received?

I get many requests for the “naked stripper on her knees” sculpture for bachelor parties, as well as the ever-popular “perfect specimen” luge for bachelorette parties.

I have one client who, every year, orders some insane concept with a strange title. Last year was a robot unicorn with a penis that (dispenses) booze. This year, the concept started out as a performance with ideas of a voodoo ceremony with chickens and an old lady throwing rice at me. It has now developed into a Cyborg Yeti holding a pack of bacon. Not sure how that is going to come out yet, but I’m not scared of a challenge.