Along the Truckee River, amid the commercial buildings of West River Street, there stands an aluminum trailer and a small building with a tin roof. The scene outside of the shed is intriguing, with a granite carving of a Sierra rockfish, a hefty wooden bench, and random fixtures scattered about. Inside the shed, a diamond saw roars and sparks fly as Ira Kessey — donning a worn Dorfman Pacific outback hat, his staple headwear — slices through chunks of gold ore, enveloped by the rising steam from the hot water that lubricates the blade.

Kessey is the specialty art sculptor behind El Toro Bravo’s 8-foot matador statue and the rock signage for Wild Cherries, Pastime Club, and the Tahoe Donner Golf Course tee markers, to name a few. Two of his current projects truly demonstrate Kessey’s adventurous side: transforming a client’s basement into a gold mine-themed wine cellar; and competing in Carve Tahoe, where he and his teammates are pitted against international teams to carve the best design out of a 20-ton snow cube in four days, beginning Jan. 28. Dubbed the Tahoe/Truckee team, Kessey and his teammates will represent the region with an elaborate carving of Chief Truckee kneeling down to grab a fish from the Truckee River.

The breadth and diversity of Kessey’s work over the past 35 years, combined with his mastery of them, is a testament to his artistic character — one that can’t be confined within a singular medium or art form, and one that is engrained within the very core of his being. Raised in Oakland, he started woodcarving at age 8, received an art school scholarship after high school (which he never used), and at age 23 opened an art glass studio in Oakland.

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“I could go to school or I could learn firsthand; I’m the kind of guy that if I don’t know something, I’m going to go wherever I have to go to find out what I need to learn,” Kessey said. “When I had my art glass company, I would read up whatever I could but I pretty much experimented and figured out my own way to do it.”

Kessey put glasswork on the backburner 20 years ago, closing the studio and learning the intricacies of the monument trade and how to carve granite and marble while working for Turlock Marble and Granite. “[The owner] used to get all upset because I was doing things that he couldn’t do,” Kessey said. “I pushed myself and I got more into the dimensional sculpting and relief carving.” Over the next two decades Kessey finessed his skills in sculpting any stone, casting metal and glasswork, and experimenting with every material possible through extensive commissioned and personal projects.

Last October, Kessey was asked by Rafael Velasco, a local general contractor, to help turn a Tahoe Donner basement into a gold mine-themed wine cellar. Kessey, an extreme history buff, jumped at the chance. The team did thorough research by touring operating mines in places like Grass Valley, seeking out mining artifact collectors and buying anything they would sell (like old mining tools), and even handpicking 400 pounds of gold ore to create a gold vein that runs up the cellar’s wall. Kessey took hundreds of photographs inside the mines so that the basement would feel like a genuine mine tour. He’s loved every minute of it.

“I’m trying to create everything as authentic as it would have been built back in the 1800s,” Kessey said. “All the old posts and beams are out of old timbers from the snow sheds up on Donner Summit … an old mining cart from Virginia City [is] going in as the table … and it will sit on a track that runs through the room.” The walls and ceilings throughout are either covered with real stone, or are textured with lath and concrete, all illuminated by hanging lanterns.

As the gold mine basement project winds down, Kessey is preparing for Carve Tahoe. He and his teammates — Mark Davis of San Francisco and Ed Winslow of South Lake — were connected last year by competition organizers when the Russian team was unable to attend. The Tahoe/Truckee team was born, and with only a week to prepare they were proud to have won the 2013 people’s choice award for their design “Rising Tide,” which featured a man getting sucked under a huge wave in reference to rising ocean levels.

This year Kessey’s team returns, and with a thoroughly planned design. Having extensively researched Chief Truckee prior to Carve, Kessey suggested to his teammates that they do a Chief Truckee sculpture, and they have been refining the design for months. The team will have four days to carve a massive block of snow, using only hand tools and racing against the clock and the sun’s rays.

A definite history fanatic, Kessey understands the significance of the Chief Truckee sculpture and wants to make sure to do it right. “I’m going to be contacting the [Paiute] Indian Tribe council and submitting the design to them, to see if we get their blessing,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do this without their okay.”

Whether carving snow or stone, casting bronze or glass, or turning a basement into a gold mine, Kessey is happiest when he has projects piling up in his studio, waiting for his trained hands to grab hold and create something magnificent.

“That’s what gets me most excited; the future projects that are coming in the door, it’s like they get better and better,” he said with a smile. “Two years ago, if you told me I’d be sculpting giant pieces of snow, I’d say you’re crazy … I’m just living a blessed life as an artist.”

Kessey’s team will be doing ice carving demos outside of Moody’s and Bar of America on Jan. 24, starting at 4 p.m. To contact Ira Kessey for commission work or to learn more, email irakessey@sbcglobal.net.

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