The little guy had missed Don Lowing’s surprise visit to preschool. Missed the 43-year-old Havertown dad showing up in aviator glasses and shushing a big group of rambunctious kids with a roaring chainsaw and sturdy little chisel.
Don had carved Olaf the Disney snowman out of a slab of ice. When finished, Olaf sparkled like a toddler-sized diamond. The kids were so mesmerized, not a single one could talk.
A few days after the Ultimate Cool Dad School Visit, the master was doing his magic on a Sunday at Linvilla Orchards in Media. I took my son, who’d missed Mr. Lowing the day he’d surprised the kids at school.
“Maybe,” the little dude said, “he’ll make Elsa!”
Turns out I was the one more surprised than anyone else.
As we passed rows of idling cars waiting to load cut-your-own Christmas trees at Linvilla’s famously carnival-like grounds, Don’s carving kingdom came into wondrous view: Olaf next to Elsa next to The Grinch and the Whoville gang who stole — or helped save — Christmas.
If you were staring at an iPhone touch screen moments before — as I was — you couldn’t help but wonder just how much our souls have been dying, one toxic pixel at a time, in that virtual universe beneath our smartphone touchpads.
Don was cold but in a zone of bliss. The Renaissance guy is a trained chef and has an executive MBA. To pay the bills, he works full-time helping St. Joseph’s University professors design computer illustrations. To feed the side of his brain that uses no reboot button, he tangos with tools and ice.
Frozen flecks squalled like snowdust off his sculpture as Don polished Elsa’s flowing locks with quick, perfect swipes of a buzzing tool. So what if he was soaked in shards that had melted through porous boots? So what if his cheeks had been beaten red by the subzero shrapnel of his creation?
The iPhone in his pocket, that crack pipe of digital dependency, was little more than dead weight as this Delaware County da Vinci dad made magic with only numb fingers and the elegance of a mortal soul.
“They are very aggressive tools,” Don said of the chainsaw. He has tamed the tool of destruction since falling in love with ice sculpture as a chef in a former professional life. In Don’s hands, such tools become docile servants.
“One of the challenges,” he said, “is being able to use them to create something beautiful.”
One of the challenges of being alive these days is finding a warm-blooded balance, as policymakers and people, between how much we let our digital economy tamper with our humanity. People like Don, whose lives have evenly straddled the analog and digital age, see that fault line perhaps better than any other generation.
After earning a culinary degree from Bucks County Community College in the early 1990s, he studied animation, film, design, and sculpture at University of the Arts. When he started at U Arts, there was no such thing as Google. When he graduated, there was.
Ice carving was a niche done mostly by chefs when he took a stab at his first frozen slab in the 1990s. He loved it so much he ended up doing it full time for about a decade.
“Once you do one, you have the bug,” said fellow ice carver Kevin Gregory, a 49-year-old former chef who founded and owns his own business, Ice Concepts Inc., in Hatfield, Montgomery County.
Kevin, though, has turned to machines to help.
He owns two factory-grade robots that can do more than half of the carving on projects. He and his staff still draw and install the designs that order the machine around. Human hands finish the jobs, too.
But the machines have meant career longevity for Kevin. He can carve a lot more jobs, which means he can take a lot more orders for lavish bar mitzvahs and corporate affairs.
The machines, he insists, are his friend — even though he sees them as a no-joke threat to the broader economy.
“We are roboting ourselves out of physical labor,” Kevin says, pointing to a loading dock where a truck driver will soon be hauling a batch of ice carvings. “We now have driverless vehicles that are being tested. There won’t be any Ubers next. Truck driver, which is a really good trade for a lot of people, will be disappearing.”
Don, too, has fears. He reads the sobering data on how many jobs will vanish in the next few decades as machines increasingly make human beings obsolete in the workforce.
He’s pragmatic enough to have stopped ice sculpting full time a while back because of how hard it can be on an artist’s body. At Linvilla, he hauled huge blocks of ice all by himself when he wasn’t standing on a forklift and pressing his body against enormous slabs to keep them from slipping off.
But he doesn’t think the key is to flee the digital or analog worlds entirely. It’s finding a balance — and forcing that into your life one way or another.
“Everything’s moving in the digital world as fast as you can possibly keep up,” he admits.
Stepping away to carve Ice Santa? Himself a creature of arctic fantasy?
That’s called keeping your real-world sanity.