Colored Ice: A Child’s Self-Initiated Foray into Ephemeral Art | David Rufo

One day I noticed the art bin in our fourth grade classroom contained a handful of markers that had been gutted. Not only were the tops missing but the end caps and ink-filled cores as well. A similar thing happened a few years earlier when our supply of retractable ballpoint pens were poached and dismantled so that their springs could be used as mini catapults. When I inquired a few students mentioned they had seen Cooper (a pseudonym) taking the markers apart. Trying not to let my irritation get the best of me, I asked Cooper why he had taken apart the markers. He hardly looked up. He was “making colored ice,” he said nonchalantly. My interest was piqued.  “Can you show me?” I asked, “Sure” he replied as he walked over to a mini refrigerator in the back of our classroom, opened it, and gestured toward six paper coffee cups inside.

When I first met Cooper I didn’t think that he was the creative type. Sporting a Mohawk, Cooper struck me more as the quintessential bruiser: big, athletic, tough, self-assured. I’ve seen kids literally bounce off of him while playing games during recess. Although very bright and capable, Cooper didn’t fret over putting forth his best effort academically. Because of this reputation, I assumed he was fooling around and having a bit of fun at the expense of our classroom supplies. Cooper took the cups out of the refrigerator, turned them over, and with a decisive smack dislodged a conical block of ice from each cup. Instantaneously I shifted from feelings of anger, annoyance, and impatience to visual transcendence. The ice blocks set on the table before me were chunky, moderately tapered, monochromatic cylinders. They appeared to be translucent and luminescent gems of amber, cobalt blue, mint, and forest green. Instead of the light being reflected or refracted, it seemed to emanate from within.

I started thinking about artists for whom light had been an integral part of their art. In Rembrandt’s work figures are illuminated by a glow from some “hidden source” [1] within the painting.  The contemporary artist Ross Bleckner defined his work as various meditations on light [2]. James Turrell’s art does not present “objects in space, but light in space” [3].

As I stood transfixed, absorbed in my examination of the luminous blocks of color, Cooper became concerned that the ice was beginning to melt, and asked if he could put them back into the refrigerator. This brought me to another realization: time was an important factor in his art. It wasn’t the type of art one could observe for hours on end. Cooper’s art was ephemeral – time was fleeting and moments became precious.

Many contemporary artists who create temporary art often do so at a great cost and effort. Consider the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. One artwork from 2002 titled Transient Rainbow was a fireworks display that “consisted of 1,000 shells that were launched in sequence from the Manhattan side of the river, ascending and descending in an arc toward Queens on the opposite side” and involved the “New York City Fire Department, Transit Authority, Coast Guard, and Federal Aviation Administration” [4]. The Danish artist Marco Evaristti needed two icebreaker ships to spray “780 gallons of red dye onto an almost 10,000-square-foot iceberg” [5] for his 2004 work Ice Cube Project. An installation titled Tribute in Light created as a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was composed of “88 Space Cannon searchlights, each four feet tall, with a 7,000-watt xenon bulb” [6] installed at Ground Zero.

After a few weeks had gone by I still found myself thinking back to the mesmerizing ice blocks.   Although it would encourage the destruction of additional markers, I wanted to see the process Cooper used to create his colored ice. He was happy to oblige me. First Cooper used his teeth to wrench off the bottom cap of a water-based green marker. Next he rapidly tapped the marker in the palm of his hand to release the ink filled core. He then dipped the core into a paper coffee cup filled with water and squeezed out the ink turning the water a deep forest green. Lastly he placed the cup into the mini refrigerator and checked to see that the temperature gauge was turned up to its coldest setting.

That was it. The process was cheap, simple, and profoundly effective.


[1] McCall, G.H. (2005). Paintings by the great Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. New York: William Bradford Press.
[2] Siegel, J. (Ed.). (1988). Art talk: The early 80s. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc.
[3] Adcock, C. (1990). James Turrell: The art of light and space. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[4] Fichner-Rathus, L. (2012). Understanding art (10th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage.
[5] Fichner-Rathus, L. (2012). Understanding art (10th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage.
[6] Dunlap, D.W. (2006, September 9). Twin beams to light sky again. But after 2008? The NewYork Times. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from, ink, and antique letterpress to examine children’s literature.

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