Mary Syrett - September 2008

Sand Castles - A Unique Art Form


Mary Syrett

   From an Ocean City beach, the observer swings binoculars past sunbathers to watch the ocean sweep into a cove. She focuses on the grains of sand waves leave behind and imagines creative forms emerging on the beach. She is a sand sculptor and the beach is her canvas.
    All along the Delmarva coast, a person can step into a surreal world where adults are children again, and where art and adventure go hand in hand. Welcome to the world of sand sculptures.
    Children typically build sand castles purely for the fun of it. Adults, however, are increasingly engaging in sand sculpting contests, in which the goal is to create structures that don’t appear to be constructed simply from sand, though in truth they are.
    The Grains of Time. It is difficult to believe there was ever a time when people did not relax near a shoreline and move wet sand around until it resembled some object. Sand sculptor Ted Siebert writes in his book The Art of Sandcastling that the ancient Egyptians made sand models of the Pyramids before starting actual construction. An Indian myth dating to the fourteenth century refers to the poet Balaram Das, who built devotional sculptures from sand.
    Early “artists” to financially profit from their sand sculpting abilities surfaced in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the late nineteenth century. Spectators walking along the boardwalk threw tips to the bowler hat-wearing sand creators.
    Some people credit Philip McCord with creating the first true sand sculpture in 1897; it featured a mother and her baby. By the early 1900s, word had gotten around that serious money could be made in sand sculpting; consequently, enterprising “artistes” were soon found on nearly every city block, so much so that Atlantic City’s town fathers began viewing them as public nuisances. In 1944, a hurricane tore up the famed boardwalk and demolished the nearby sand dunes. The city government saw the change in landscape as an opportunity to ban sand sculpting all along the shore, a law that has never been rescinded.
    Sand sculptors were earning money as well as a reputation for financial chicanery – on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1901, Emory James wrote an article for The Strand Magazine concerning a “Professor” Eugene Bormel, who was creating sand sculptures on the coast at a North Sea summer resort. James assured his readers that the professor should not be classified with “the cheapskates of the sands, who, for a few coins, deign to display their artistic skill before the multitude.”
    After World War II, sandcastle contests began popping up in beachside resort towns all along the Maryland coast. However, modern-day sand sculpturing really got started in California in the early 1970s with the teaming up of Gerry Kirk and Todd VanderPluym, who collectively formed Sand Sculptors International. They set the standard for the art form by organizing teams of sculptors to create detailed replicas of famous castles, fantasy architecture and mythical forms.
    Today, many beachside resort towns host at least one sandcastle contest annually. Europe turns into a virtual sandbox every summer, with multiple projects employing many sand sculptors who try to outdo one another with special effects. One artist, G. Augustine Lynas, has been doing public sand sculptures for half a century. He deliberately creates them in places where they are gradually destroyed by the tide, encouraging brief but intense emotional attachment to the (literally) disappearing art.
    Artist Randy Hofman shapes sand in the hope he’ll help shape souls. Millions of Ocean City vacationers know his work because they’ve stopped to marvel at the biblical scenes of the Last Supper, Noah and the Ark, the Crucifixion, and David and Goliath that he creates from sand just off the Boardwalk at Second Street. Hofman, who lives in Ocean Pines, carves simple messages beneath his sculptures, such as “God Loves Us All,” “With God, All Things Are Possible” and “Thank You, Jesus.”
    Sand sculpting takes more know-how than merely pounding wet sand into shapes. Some of the best sand sculptors have created schools with the beach as a classroom where neophytes learn how to wow fellow sunbathers with their sand creations. In Lewes Beach, Delaware, Lynn McKeowen teaches sandcastle building, but accepts no payment, though she admits an “ulterior motive” to turn kids who would be sand castle destroyers into sand castle creators.”
    While professionals are certainly devoted to their craft, the real magic of sand lies in the hands of anyone who discovers that you can do really cool things with wet sand, a shovel, and a marked propensity to be a kid again.
    The Basics. The best sand for sculpting purposes is to be found just below the crest of a beach and is of the right consistency soon after the last retreating wave has departed.
    Tools for sculpting can come from your kitchen or workshop. A shovel is a must. Bring one with a long handle to spare your back, as well as a bucket. Masonry trowels, spatulas, apple corers, chisels, spoons, knives and pastry brushes are all useful. Don’t be afraid to improvise. A plastic fork with the middle prongs broken off makes a perfect tool for forming intricate sandcastle columns.
    The creative process begins by drawing a rough sketch of whatever it is you’d like to build. Then, choose a square site in the sand near the water, but not so close that waves will destroy your creation the instant the tide comes up.
    Dig a hole down to the water table, where sand is dark and moist, or, as an alternative, haul up large buckets of sand from near the ocean. Scoop wet sand onto the center of the area where you’ll be working.
    Build towers by stacking sand patties about the size and shape of thick pancakes. Place larger patties on the bottom and gently shake the patties from side to side as you pile them up so that the sand settles. Seal the towers by gently pouring water over them.
    Build walls to connect the towers of your castle by jiggling (gently shaking from side to side) wet sand into brick shapes and laying them on top of one another. Carve the towers and the walls into shapes using a trowel or plastic utensils.
    Only experience will allow you to complete the sculpture of your dreams. “Practice, practice, practice” is a good maxim for any sculptor worth her or his salt. Only you know when a sculpture is finished.
    Places to play in the sand and observe sand sculptors at work include, in addition to Ocean City, Sandy Point State Park and Assateague State Park in Maryland, as well as Lewes Beach, Bethany Beach and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.
    From Hawaii to Holland, Alaska to Mexico, the Turks & Caicos Islands to Cape Cod and Sri Lanka to Florida’s Space Coast, sand sculpting has become an increasingly popular recreational phenomenon. Shaping sand into quasi-artistic shapes offers elements of performance, participation and relaxation that are unique to the beach.
    Sand sculpting is purely an object of the imagination. Such art is mentally and physically interactive; a person expresses in sand what cannot be expressed any other way. Adults find sandcastle construction to be almost Zen-like in its ability to create total focus and relaxation.
    Sand sculpting is not just an interesting art form, it is a learning experience, for children as well as adults. Watch a sand sculptor at work, or explore the huge castles, beautiful princesses and fierce dragons that rise out of the sand, and feelings of summer and long days at the beach will be burned into your memory, to be revived on chilly winter days.
    Crowds, so familiar in our cities, who gather to watch the activities of a building site or who wouldn’t miss a fire, stand transfixed in front of a sand creation under construction. For the creator, the indefinable pleasure derived is not disconnected from the fact that such a permanent-looking structure on so ambitious a scale can be made in so short a time, and yet disappear so dramatically. When the people leave and the sun sets, the Atlantic Ocean slithers up onto a Delmarva beach, splashes over the shattered fortifications, and melts the battlefields back to nothing. Construction of sand creations is an ephemeral but enjoyable activity. I’m on the dark side of 50, and can’t wait to get out where I can be a kid again. My problem is, I never really grew up. And maybe, you never really did either.