23 Apr ICE-storia
“It is amazing how much finesse you can get with something as brutal as a chainsaw,” says Shintaro Okamoto, watching his employee Thomas Brown jab away at a 300-pund cube of solid ice. We are on the floor of Mr. Okamoto’s eponymous studio in Astoria, where Mr. Brown is just beginning the process of creating a 48-inch ice bowl. “We have a standing order with the World Trade Center for these,” Brown says as a snow of ice chips (ice-dust?) flies off his spinning blade. “I think they use them to put shrimp in.”
Okamoto Studios is New York’s pre-eminent ice sculpting enterprise. Located in a large black warehouse underneath the N-train at 35th Avenue, at the edge of the Kaufman Arts District, Mr. Okamoto’s family business supplies custom ice sculptures and high-end ice creations throughout Greater NYC. Employing fully a dozen carvers, and with a pedigreed client list that includes Martha Stewart and Cirque du Soleil, Okamoto Studios owes its existence to Shintaro’s late father, Takeo. “My father was a very hands-on creative person, and he learned ice sculpting while he was at Sushi school in Japan,” explains Shintaro, adding “Ice carving has an intimate history with Japan.”
Described by his son as one of those Japanese who, “was always in love with America,” Takeo emigrated his family to Alaska in the early 1980s, to take over a sushi restaurant. It was not until many years later, partially on his son’s urging, that he decided to sell his restaurant and home, and move to New York, where he founded Okamoto Studio in 2003.
Early days saw Father and Son working long, cold hours together to craft sculptures for all manner of high-end NYC events: Weddings, Mitzvahs, art openings, corporate events. Their perseverance allowed the business to flourish. From their bread-and-butter high-end decorative pieces, to a constant hum of smaller bits, to a busy sideline trade in live ice sculpting (they have been featured in the Bergdorf windows), Okamoto Studios has grown into a dependable concern. “It’s a thriving industry,” says Shintaro, citing out a few competitors in the city and around the nation. “Competitive carving is huge in the Midwest,” he says.
Behind us, Brown switches from chainsaw to ice-claw, as Shintaro elucidates me on the fundamentals of working with frozen water. “There’s wet carving—that’s when we’re working above freezing, and the ice is actively melting—and dry carving, which is done in a freezer,” he tells me. “We were trained as wet carvers, by my father, who always made us really aware of the fact that the ice is melting… and if it’s melting, it’s a one-shot deal.”
As Mr. Brown shapes his bowl, Shintaro points out the specialty freezers in which he freezes his raw material. Looking like nondescript metal tubs, these freezers cool Shintaro’s filtered water from the bottom up, rather than chilling from all sides as your home freezer does. “The result is that our ice is colder, denser, and clearer than normal ice,” he says. In addition to allowing for crystal-clear ice sculptures, these qualities make for excellent ice-cubes, and his studio does a booming trade in fancy ice for New York’s absurdly thirsty high-end cocktail crowd.
Other standing orders have included a daily Ice Buddha sculpted for Megu restaurant, a flock of small penguins collectively carved as a team-building exercise for Google, and a never-ending stream of frozen-flower centerpieces.
But it is large-scale sculptures in which Oakamoto studios finds its voice. An oasis of class in an industry that, frankly, has long been associated with tacky cruise ships and self-congratulating corporate events, Okamoto Studios earns their distinction with artisanal-quality large-scale sculptures, some of which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Elaborately designed, and often requiring multiple 300-lb blocks of ice fused together, these large works have taken the form of a life-sized Rhinoceros, a larger-than-life hippo’s head, a crystalline ice-dress, a ghost-bike in ice, a supersized chess board complete with ice pieces, and even a collection of life-sized pregnant women with silicon fetuses (Feti?) frozen into their wombs. A reindeer head mounted on the wall gives hint to the studio’s careworn sculptural ambition: “We make enough reindeers every holiday season that it just made sense to have a little reference, here,” says Shintaro.
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Art of this complexity relies on a team of trained sculptors, not just hired hands. Mr. Brown is a case in point: A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he majored in sculpture, Thomas was an early fan of Takeo Okamoto’s ice work, which he had followed online. Having long dreamed of a career with the studios, he got in touch with Shintaro upon moving to the city, and was given a simple task by way of entry exam: To carve a bowl just as the one he has now completed:
Needless to say, Brown’s chops were up to snuff.