Joe O'Donoghue hates swans. He much prefers dead elephants or even crocodile skulls. But don't call the ASPCA. O'Donoghue doesn't dislike animals. He's an ice sculptor with a quirky ice-sthetic. "I stay outside the lines," he says. "Very early on I refused to do swans—no swans."

O'Donoghue, whose work has appeared on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and the 1998 Grammy Awards, carved the elephant and the crocodile for a 1997 installation in honor of wildlife photographer Peter Beard. "I can tell him that I want a sculpture to look like the emperor Claudius," says Martha Stewart, "and he can do it."

O'Donoghue, 36, was a hotel chef on Long Island in 1992 when he stumbled onto his métier. With his family coming for brunch, he took a chain saw to a frozen block and created a whimsical horse-head centerpiece. "I had never made one before," says O'Donoghue, an 11th-grade dropout who flunked art, "but I thought it would be easy."

By the end of that year, the aspiring sculptor, who grew up in Lindenhurst, N.Y., the son of Joe, a truck driver, and Sabene, a seamstress, was out of the kitchen and in the studio. Now charging up to $750 each for his artwork, he toils in the basement of the Brooklyn building where he lives with girlfriend Norah Sullivan, 30. His work is in such demand that he employs four other sculptors, all subject to the same uncompromising artistic vision. "If I say to one of my guys, 'That looks like an ice sculpture,' " says O'Donoghue, "that's bad."