Reverend Butter—Arctic Lumberjack

HOUSTON—Reverend Butter can make it snow in Texas. A self-described “arctic lumberjack,” he is a Houston-based ice sculptor who says ice is his life.

Looking the part of a Texan cowboy complete with leather chaps, boots and clinking spurs, Reverend Butter says, “I’m truly one of the last artisans who do it by hand the old school way—with chisels and chainsaws—all hand-sculpted.” The first part of his name comes from the passion he has for his style of sculpting, which can come off as preaching when Reverend Butter gets going on how the art is being taken over by computers. “I do it all by hand, not by machine,” he says.

Butter not only doesn’t rely on computers but he also doesn’t rely on ice suppliers. He does it all himself, beginning with making the ice, a process that takes place in an area attached to the back of his studio—a bright-blue two-story home where he grew up. Two armored statues stand guard at one end of the space he calls the “ice house.” Here, eight giant coolers are filled with water, cooled for three and a half days before yielding 300-pound blocks of ice for Butter to work with.

A variety of tools are spread on a wooden work bench where Butter creates custom designs for clients. “A lot of my favorites are custom designs that incorporate drink, food, something with audience participation. A lot of times, people think it’s a prop. You can see people admire it, but when they touch it, the look on their face is priceless. They gasp and it hits them that it’s really ice. It’s a really cool feeling.”

The audience reaction intensifies when Reverend Butter sculpts live at events and concerts. “Presentation-wise, I get a little bit overdramatic but it’s my love affair with what I do. Sculpting ice, it’s my life,” he says. “I would like to leave my mark in the art world of just being a sculptor who cared, had a passion for what he did.”

Tonight, that passion is visible as he sets four blocks of ice outside his studio. The mere proximity of the blocks drops the air temperature several degrees on an already chilly fall night. With an intensity in his eyes and old school ‘80s metal playing in the background, he fires up a chainsaw and gets to work cutting through the ice with ease. Purplish lights cast an eerie glow among the ice blocks that are starting to become parts of a dragon. Droplets of water and frost fly off the chainsaw blade, much of them landing on Reverend Butter, turning his black goatee white.

It’s been a 10-year journey for Reverend Butter to this point, beginning with a several-year apprenticeship with a Swiss sculptor. “You can’t really teach someone how to sculpt ice. You can teach them to use a chainsaw as an extension of your arms, a chisel, how to operate all that equipment, but you can’t teach them to sculpt. That’s inside of you,” he says. It’s been inside of Reverend Butter since the beginning. “You go home and you’re dreaming about what you’re doing. It’s a borderline obsession and not just a passion.” So much so that he wears his mantra literally on his sleeve in the form of a tattoo: “Remember anyone can carve ice, not everyone can sculpt it.”

That tattoo is one of many Butter has on his arms and chest. Others include portraits of Mexican revolutionaries, which are significant to Butter given his family background. “Growing up here was just a unique experience because my roots were ranchera, polka music…I’m first generation Texan via Mexico. I still speak nothing but Spanish to my parents.” Butter’s grandmother has also played a major role in his art and he pays homage to her with his logo (also tattooed on his arm) inspired by her Loteria cards.

Outside his studio, on the wet cement, Butter finishes up the dragon ice sculpture using a drill to add scales and finally by moving flames over the ice to smooth it out. “All the time and sacrifice is well worth it,” he says as he moves the flame behind the dragon’s mouth, a final gesture that makes his work come alive.

His sculpture is done for tonight. But Butter has bigger aspirations. “I want someone to look at my work and cry, just cry whether it’s tears of joy, tears of sadness or anger. It’s pulling emotions—That’s the ultimate goal whether it’s on a massive scale or on a small palm-sized sculpture scale. It’s catching all the senses not just visually but emotionally.”