It all started when Tomoaki Ichikawa felt unfulfilled about his artistry.
As an aspiring painter, Ichikawa frequently used his imagination. He’d feel mentally exhausted by the end of the day, putting vision to paper, but he noticed that his body was never tired. Looking for a new challenge and inspired by one of his friend’s works, he turned to wood carving and chose to use his daughter as a model.
This was 12 years ago. Now, Ichikawa is still carving models of his daughter and gifting the final works to her on her birthday.
“The initial goal was to make them until she turned 20 (the age of adulthood in Japan). But now, who knows, maybe I’ll keep going,” the 43-year-old artist from Tokyo told VICE.
Each of Ichikawa’s carefully whittled figurines takes about a month to make. His daughter’s birthday is in June and around May, he consults his wife and daughter about that year’s design.
“Usually, the design will reflect something that’s happened in her life that year. For instance, around her seventh birthday, she really wanted a cat. So for the seventh statue, I sculpted a cat on her head,” he said.
For her 11th birthday, one she celebrated during the pandemic last year, Ichikawa whittled the sculpture a hat shaped like an amabie, a half-fish, half-human creature from 19th century Japanese folklore. Amabie is said to prophesy epidemics and protect people from disease.
He starts by drawing the year’s design on a block of camphor wood or Japanese whitebark, materials less prone to bug damage. Then, he uses a saw or power tool to roughly shape it. To achieve the finer details, he carves with a chisel. The final touch of color that brings the sculptures to life are painted on.
Looking back on his 12 pieces, Ichikawa said it’s interesting to witness growth and maturity reflected in each work. He said they are at once his daughter and not.
“They all look like her, sure. But my thoughts and feelings as I was making these are also part of the piece,” he said.
“As I carve each work, I don’t set out with the intention of the final piece evoking a specific emotion—I’ll think about what I ate, or what she said that day. Rather, I think there’s a different emotion behind each detail I whittle. That’s what makes it not my daughter too, because the way I feel about her is projected onto the sculpture.”
Though he’s been honing this craft for over a decade, Ichikawa is self-taught and learns as he goes. He said he feels his improvements are slow and that he still finds “each piece difficult to make, just in different ways.”
Given that Ichikawa has whittled a sculpture for his daughter’s birthday every year, the works don’t usually garner much fanfare at home. Still, he said his daughter is always pleased with the pieces.
“I actually had to remake the first one I made for her. My wife and I think that she was playing with it and it accidentally got tossed into the garbage—she was only a baby. So she seemed to have liked the pieces from the beginning,” he said.
Ichikawa’s favorite piece is often the one he most recently carved. He said they hold the most emotion for him, but he’s particularly proud of the one he made for his daughter’s 12th birthday this year. The sculpture sports a pair of glasses similar to the ones she has started wearing.
If her daughter moves out, Ichikawa isn’t sure if he’d let her leave with the sculptures.
“I think it might be nice to have them in the house. That way, it’ll feel like she’s by my side.”