Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Stop trying to control the mercury, for one.
Each week in December, we’ll be profiling a different seasonal job. This is the third installment. The first followed a day in the life of a department store elf, and the second featured blueberry farmers who sell Christmas trees.
Earlier this week, Shintaro Okamoto and his team loaded 70 blocks of ice, 270 pounds each, into trucks and drove from their Long Island City headquarters to Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. The ice sculptors were headed, chisels and chainsaws in hand, to a carving demonstration in Grace Plaza, for the fourth year in a row.
The team at Okamoto Studio was tasked with sculpting a menagerie of prehistoric beasts during a two-hour performance. They hacked away at the blocks in the studio before packing them into insulated cardboard boxes. (That gave them more time to pull off impressive flourishes later, in front of the crowd.) The disassembled pieces can travel separately and be fused together upon arrival. “A splash of water becomes the glue,” Okamoto explains.
Blue and purple LED lights illuminate the creatures’ massive maws, glinting off their fangs and claws, making the ice look like gemstones.
The problem was, the temperature soared to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
“When ice warms up, it loses its binding properties and gets really slippery,” says Okamoto. In an effort to help the structure stay together, “we score it in between with a large handsaw to create slush, like you’re doing ceramics,” he adds. But that only goes so far.
When they’re building installations, the team often surrounds the creations with dry ice to extend their lifespan. This year, that wasn’t cutting it. “It was more of a one-night thing,” Okamoto laughs. Within a few hours, the creatures melted, as if evolving backwards, into primordial goo.
Even in cooler weather, ice sculptures are inevitably, inescapably temporary. For Okamoto, the melting is a lesson in letting go. “It’s humbling for us that it’s not just about what we do, but what life [the work] takes on after,” he says.
After graduating with an MFA in painting from Hunter College, Okamoto had a decision to make: wade into the melee of fighting for meager teaching gigs, or find a way to make a living as a working artist. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, he’d learned the ice-sculpting trade from his father, a master carver, and entered competitions throughout high school. (“Not that everyone in Alaska plays with ice,” he says. “But I did.”) In 2003, the father and son reunited in New York to launch a studio together.
Though the studio—which also has a branch in the Hamptons—is busy all year, November and December are the zaniest months. Spring brings awards season and galas; summer signals weddings; fall tends to come with product launches for which companies commission elaborate ice chandeliers or fountains. But during the holidays, says Okamoto, “We’re working for lots of parties that happen everywhere, all over the city, everyday.”
Okamoto doesn’t usually work inside a freezer. “Real estate is prime,” he says. “Some places might have thousands of feet of walk-in freezers, but we don’t have that luxury working in New York.”
But the studio’s newest project, a collaboration with Barney’s New York, has a carver hammering away inside a storefront-cum-freezer chilled to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Decked out in designer jumpsuits, the carvers wield silver and chrome tools to fashion little penguins and other wintry scenes as part of the shop’s holiday festivities. It’s cold for the workers, but cool for the viewers.
“They like to see the finesse we can get from something as brute as a chainsaw,” Okamoto says. “It’s fragile, ephemeral, and beautiful. That contrast is inherently romantic.”