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Queens Chronicle

An ephemeral art form at Okamoto Studio in Astoria

The ice king and his Astoria-based kingdom

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Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 12:07 pm, Thu Feb 7, 2013.

There’s the stereotypical movie scene where a woman dressed in a slinky ball gown glides down the red-velvet carpeted stairs towards a table with a flowing champagne fountain and a swan ice sculpture.

That is the sort of stock design artists at Okamoto Ice Sculpture Studio try to lead customers away from.

“Many people’s knowledge of ice sculptures are limited to catering halls and cruise ships,” the studio’s co-founder, Shintaro Okamoto, said. “It’s sort of a joke in the office that we don’t do hearts and doves.”

“Sometimes someone will come in asking for a swan,” he said, ”but when we ask why they aren’t sure.”

They typically decide on something else, something that uniquely represents the celebration they commissioned the work for.

***

Okamoto Ice Sculpture Studio is housed in an unassuming warehouse space under the elevated subway tracks on 31st Street in Astoria. Last Thursday the heavy metal garage door was rolled up to the top and a red and white Japanese-motif fabric flag fought against the icy gusts steamrolling down the streets.

Inside, the left wall is lined with light boxes and Plexiglas for ice sculpture installations. Farther into the large concrete warehouse space sit two walk-in freezers, one for their in-house-made, crystal-clear ice blocks and the other filled with completed works.

On Thursday the freezer housed an ice football helmet — soon to be carted out to Long Island for a Super Bowl party, mini skiis and snowshoes to be used by a catering hall to serve bits of this and that and a 2-foot-tall sculpture of a downhill skier.

The team of about five artists has created a variety of works — about 12 a week — from installations for high-end fashion shows, Porsche replicas for product launches, a giant heart constructed out of dozens of ice blocks in a collaboration with a team of architects in Time Square, and specialty ice cubes that melt slowly and have no air bubbles to compliment the perfect cocktail at top-notch bars like Momofuku in Manhattan.

This weekend the team will craft a Thomas the Tank Engine sculpture in Times Square for the kickoff of the annual American International Toy Fair.

In the back of the warehouse there’s a bevy of chainsaws and heavy machinery that would rival any lumberjack’s collection. (The artists use chainsaws for the majority of their chiseling.)

On the right wall are the ice makers. The machines freeze the perfectly see-through, 300-pound blocks from the bottom up to create flawless, air bubbleless cubes.

In the center is where the sculptors work — slicing off chunks of ice to reveal masterpieces, works that lose their details after about six hours and melt completely away in four days.

“These are once in a lifetime events — bar mitzvahs, weddings — and we hope the ice sculptures help individuals appreciate these moments more,” Okamoto said. “These sculptures only last for the event as well. It’s what makes ice emotional.”

***

Okamoto founded the studio in 2003 with his father, who passed away last April. His father learned the art of ice sculpting in Japan, where he trained as a sushi chef. When he moved the family to Anchorage, Alaska, he started a restaurant as well as a side ice sculpture company that used frozen fragments of a nearby lake.

“I like to preface this — not everyone in Alaska plays with ice,” Okamoto said. “But I did.”

The naturally artistic Okamoto would help design the pieces his father carved and when he grew up he left Alaska to go to Brown University and get his masters in fine arts at Hunters College.

When he graduated, his father had sold the restaurant and was working as a free agent ice sculptor. It was a good time for the duo to start their own studio, and the Big Apple seemed like the best place to begin the artistic endeavor.

“New York City is always hungry for something unique,” Okamoto said.

Welcome to the discussion.