5 Things to Know About Jim Zupfer ’91 and His Ice Sculptures

Since graduating from Bethel, Jim Zupfer ’91 has touched numerous lives during a 30-year career as a seventh grade science teacher. But many around the Twin Cities may recognize him as a regular at the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s annual ice carving contest.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

February 19, 2021 | 11:30 a.m.

Jim Zupfer ’91

Jim Zupfer ’91 works on an ice sculpture of his daughter at a former St. Paul Winter Carnival.

When life provides lemons, some people make lemonade. Jim Zupfer ’91 takes a different approach: “If Minnesota gives you snow and ice, you might as well make an ice sculpture, right?” he says. Zupfer has continued two passions since graduating from Bethel: teaching and ice sculpting.

Here are five things to know about Zupfer and his ice sculptures:

1. He started ice sculpting through a high school art class.

Zupfer’s ice carving dates to an art class he took as a freshman at Como Park High School in St. Paul. His teacher took a workshop hosted by Japanese ice sculptors, which led Zupfer, his teacher, and some fellow students to compete at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. Their Siberian husky and sleigh took first place in the contest. After competing with the group again the next year, Zupfer continued competing on his own, and sometimes with other artists at the carnival. He even competed a few times during his Bethel days. Since 1995, Zupfer hasn’t missed the competition at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. “I think it is such a unique and intriguing medium to work in,” he says.

Jim Zupfer ’91

Jim Zupfer ’91 poses with his children Benji, 15, and Mira, 13 in front of part of his ice sculpture “New Beginnings” at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds during the 2021 St. Paul Winter Carnival.

2. His ice sculptures have chronicled many family moments.

Zupfer has captured big and small family moments in ice. Perhaps his biggest came on New Year’s Eve in 1998. Zupfer proposed to his wife, Amy, with an ice sculpture of himself on one kneed holding a ring and red rose. Since she said “yes,” their three children, Sylvia, 18, Benji, 15, and Mira, 13, have also become frequent subjects. For many years, Zupfer recreated small moments of his children in ice sculptures—one showed Amy bent over an infant Sylvia on her lap, another chronicled Benji’s first steps, and one showed Amy lifting Mira in the air. Others included family pets or highlighted the children’s hobbies like dance, music, and volleyball. The Zupfers also started a tradition of taking pictures of that year’s subject standing by the piece and reenacting the pose. “The fun of watching your kids grow up and bringing that into your art is really special,” Zupfer says. A plaque in the Zupfers’ Woodbury, Minnesota, home reads, “Enjoy the little things in life, for someday, you will realize they were the big things.” It’s Zupfer’s favorite saying. 

“As I look at my ice carving photos from over the years, I am reminded that our lives are the sum total of countless little moments with the people you love, strung together to make a lifetime. I am reminded I have so much to be grateful for!"

— Jim Zupfer ’91
Mira Zupfer

Mira Zupfer poses next to an ice sculpture her dad, Jim Zupfer ’91, made of her.

3. His ice-sculpting tools of the trade include hand chisels, power tools, gloves, and big blocks of ice.

Ice carving starts with a big block of ice—they are typically 40 inches tall, 20 inches wide, 10 inches deep, and weigh 300 pounds. The block Zupfer used to propose to his wife, Amy, cost him $58 from a local ice company. Zupfer starts most pieces with a paper template sketched from a photo that he then carves into the ice with a chisel or Dremel rotary saw/grinder. He’s done most of his carving with wood chisels over the years, but he’s more recently added a chainsaw, Dremel, and die grinder. He has carved in temperatures ranging from 10 below to 40 degrees, so each project normally requires multiple pairs of gloves—often winter ski gloves and waterproof rubber fleece-lined gloves, which are important when freezing pieces together.

Jim Zupfer ’91

Jim Zupfer ’91 frequently captures moments of his children in ice sculptures, including this one of his son Benji with a family cat. Zupfer sketched the drawing of Benji from a photo to use as a tracing to start the ice sculpture.

4. Bethel prepared him for three decades as a teacher.

Zupfer, who majored in life sciences secondary education at Bethel, is in his 30th year of teaching seventh grade science at Dakota Hills Middle School in Eagan, Minnesota. And he says Bethel prepared him well for the role. Along with fond memories of friendships, Chapel, and broomball games, Zupfer appreciates the influence on his life by dedicated and accessible professors from the Department of Biological Sciences, including Professor of Biological Sciences Emeritus Jim Reynhout, Professor of Biological Sciences Emeritus Gregg Johnson, and C. Weldon Jones, who died in 2003. 

“I am grateful that I left Bethel feeling well prepared for a career in teaching. And after 30 years, I can say it has always felt like not just a career, but a calling.”

— Jim Zupfer ’91
Jim Zupfer ’91

Jim Zupfer ’91 designed this ice sculpture, titled “New Beginnings,” with Nate Stromberg ’00 for this year’s drive-thru St. Paul Winter Carnival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. It shows four stages of the life cycle of a monarch butterfly.

5. His sculpture “New Beginnings” took second place in a vote at this year’s St. Paul Winter Carnival, one of many strong finishes over the years.

Zupfer has enjoyed many top-three finishes at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. But he took a different approach for his piece at the 2021 carnival, which was held as a drive-thru event at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds due to COVID-19. Zupfer and Nate Stromberg ’00, an art teacher at Minnehaha Academy, created a sculpture called “New Beginnings” to show four stages of a monarch butterfly’s life cycle. Zupfer often raises monarchs with his students, and he is struck by the “fragile little creature's life cycle and redemptive waiting to emerge as a beautiful adult butterfly.” The sculpture serves as a metaphor for how we are waiting patiently to emerge from our own dormancy during the pandemic, but there is the promise of a new beginning. The piece placed second out of 15 pieces in an online vote, even though it wasn’t the largest or most complex piece, which Zupfer saw as an affirmation for the message of hope and optimism. Each year, the pieces are carved in six hours at the carnival, but ice sculpting is a temporary medium as pieces can even melt before spring. But Zupfer isn’t deterred by the sculptures’ short lifespans.

“In God’s masterpiece of creation, grass withers, flowers fade, and ice melts. Though that is somewhat bittersweet, it is the nature of creating art in frozen water.”

— Jim Zupfer ’91
Jim Zupfer ’91

After using an ice sculpture of himself on one knee to propose to his wife, Amy, Jim Zupfer ’91 recreated the moment years later with another ice sculpture depicting the proposal. The proposal was featured in a frontpage article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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