Tthe buddha is reincarnated daily in the Long Island City, N.Y., ice-sculpting workshop of Okamoto Studio, and on this Saturday in January, the task falls to Peter Sheesley. Having arranged two ice blocks in an upside-down T formation, Sheesley, a figurative painter who works part-time for Okamoto, uses a chain saw to carve them into a rough outline of the deity. Then, with a motorized chisel and a conventional chisel, he renders the details. The finished sculpture is destined for Megu, the Manhattan restaurant for which Okamoto has been carving a Buddha a day for nearly two years.
The Megu Buddha is one of the many ways that Shintaro Okamoto, a 32-year-old Hunter College–trained painter who cofounded the studio with his father and his wife, demonstrates the aesthetic potential of ice. “It’s an underappreciated material,” says Shintaro. From blocks of ice, the studio has crafted a replica of Rodin’s The Kiss, a 900-pound chandelier, and a playground with a dragon that permitted children to enter its belly and emerge from its mouth. Size, as well as complexity, determines the price of such commissions; the studio charges a minimum of $500 for each 40-by-20-by-10-inch block it uses. (The playground, built for a Long Island winter carnival, required 60.)
The studio’s master sculptor is Shintaro’s 53-year-old father, Takeo, who learned how to carve ice in Japan in the early 1980s while training as a sushi chef. In 1984, when Shintaro was 9, Takeo moved the family to Anchorage, Alaska, opened a restaurant, and began participating in ice-sculpting contests. Later, Shintaro accompanied Takeo on the international competitive circuit, risking frostbite and enduring sleep deprivation during marathon carving sessions that could last from 48 to 72 hours. Today, Shintaro declines to discuss how long a project such as the chandelier or the Buddha takes to complete. “Unlike many ice companies that boast by equating speediness with finesse,” he says, “we insist on the completeness of quality in sculpting and thus do not like to specify timing.”
Shintaro and his father opened the studio three years ago, shortly after Takeo had sold the Anchorage restaurant and the family home. Shintaro, who was (and remains) an established artist in New York, mentioned that he wanted to start an ice-sculpting studio; Takeo liked the idea, backed it with the proceeds from the house, and joined his son in New York, where they found plenty of demand for their services. “The first year was gruesome when it was just my Dad, me, and a friend,” recalls Shintaro, whose father now leads a team of 11 sculptors. “Dad had bruised feet from standing on the concrete floor for so long, and numb tendons from holding the chain saw.”
Far from being troubled by the impermanence of his work, Shintaro embraces the fleeting nature of ice sculptures. “They’re a physical expression of the passage of time,” he says. “That mark of the now, that’s what we are trying to convey.