Using a pastry knife, Lucinda Wierenga etches an outline of a cluster of palm trees shading a charming seaside village that she’s sculpting from a 10-ton pile of sand on the beach at South Padre Island, Texas (pop. 2,422).
“I spend months thinking of my sculptures,” says Wierenga, 54, a master sand sculptor nicknamed “Sandy Feet” who co-directs Sandcastle Days, an annual fall competition that features the stunning works of two dozen professional sand sculptors from around the world.
Wierenga scrapes a clump of moist sand from between two palm fronds, then uses a plastic drinking straw dangling from her neck to blow away loose grains to make the tropical leaves look crisp and clean. She steps back a few feet to get a better perspective on the masterpiece she’s titled “All Roads Lead to the Beach.”
Up and down the beach, sun- and surf-loving sculptors shovel and stomp wet sand into easier-to-carve blocks using forms rigged from roofing paper and C-clamps. After they pack and stack the blocks, they scoop, carve and coax the heaps into a gallery of whimsical and wondrous sculptures. The competition is among four qualifying contests in the United States for artists hoping to advance to the World Championship of Sand Sculpting, scheduled Nov. 17-27 in Fort Myers Beach, Fla. (pop. 6,561).
“It’s not just sandcastles anymore,” says Mark Chapman, 53, a mechanical engineer and photographer from Portland, Ore., who plops handfuls of wet sand above the giant expressive eyes of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, before carving a set of bushy eyebrows.
“I got into this because I really wanted to make faces and figures,” says Chapman, who has sculpted about 225 mythological characters, mermaids and sea monsters in sand since 1998.
Wearing an insulated, vented hardhat to protect his head from the searing sun, he works from a rough sketch, reaching into his toolbox now and then for the perfect sand shaper: a fork, paint scraper, steak knife, trowel or metal loop. Occasionally, he sprays the sand with water so it can be sculpted and holds its shape.
A few yards away, Mark Landrum creates a whimsical scene, titled “Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head Go to Brazil,” with the portly spuds wading in a stream of vegetarian piranhas. “I carved wood when I was younger, and I was just fascinated by it,” says Landrum, 54, of Port Aransas, Texas (pop. 3,370).
During a difficult period after his divorce, the former accountant took a sandcastle-building lesson from Wierenga in 1999 and he had so much fun that he never stopped playing in sand. Four years ago, he opened his own business creating sand sculptures for businesses and corporate events, parties and weddings.
“I like how it’s not permanent,” Landrum says about sand art. “It’s there for people to enjoy. You just leave it on the beach and walk away.”
About 70,000 people enjoy watching and photographing the masters of sand during the four-day competition each October. Spectators vote for the People’s Choice Award, whereas the master sculptors judge their peers to select the top six winning entries. A $1,000 prize is awarded for first place.
Ron Duvin, 75, of Williamsburg, Va. (pop. 11,998), who visited South Padre Island for his high school class reunion, marveled at the talent of sculptor Meredith Corson, 53, of Treasure Island, Fla. (pop. 7,450). “It’s amazing she can do that much detail with sand,” he says.
Corson carves a maiden’s gown, which appears to be woven from ribbons. The former fingernail artist, who is married to sand sculptor Dan Doubleday, digs into her backyard sandbox when she needs to relax.
“It’s my getaway, my release,” she says about creating art in the sand.
Building massive sand sculptures for competitions, however, is hard work.
“We come in as the laborers with wheelbarrows and hauling clay,” Corson says. “But we leave as the rock stars.”
The artists work steadily from 8 a.m., when the competition’s co-director Walter McDonald blows a conch shell to signal the start, until 5 p.m. Though only the first-place winner earns the coveted invitation to the world championship, the competition is friendly.
“We’re like one family—one dysfunctional family,” jokes McDonald, 70, who is nicknamed “Amazin’ Walter” and has made a living building sandcastles since 1985. He and other artists team up to work on big corporate projects around the globe.
The fun and relaxed atmosphere—at least until the last frantic few hours of the contest—attracts Mark and Vickye Lambdin of San Marcos, Texas (pop. 34,733), and about 50 family members and friends each year to South Padre Island’s Sandcastle Days. They call themselves the “San Marcos Suns” and wear matching T-shirts to the reunion.
Not only do they watch the professionals, who’ve become good friends through the years, but the San Marcos Suns also compete in the event’s amateur sandcastle-building contest.
“This is art in its purest form,” says Mark, 60, a retired art teacher. “You can’t buy it, you can’t sell it, you can’t take it with you.”
After finishing touches are made, the sand sculptures are judged before being scattered by the wind and the rain.
“We’re looking for the ‘wow’ factor, something that grabs you in any way,” says judge and master sculptor Suzanne Altamare, 57, of Daytona Beach, Fla. (pop. 64,112), who helps organize and judge the world championship. Her late husband, Marc, was one of the first people to make a living as a sand sculptor in the 1960s.
Accurate proportions and consistent detailing throughout the piece are other features that the judges notice, Altamare says.
Last year, the only American to win a solo competition at the world level was Dan Belcher, 42, a landscape architect from St. Louis, who placed fourth.
“I like figurative and whimsical pieces,” says Belcher, as he smoothes a giant pair of scissors in his witty “Rock Paper Scissors” monument. “It’s freeing because you don’t have to create something that has to last. There’s nobody telling you it’s right or wrong.”
Sculptor Kirk Rademaker, 59, a cabinetmaker and draftsman from Oakland, Calif., competed on a four-person team that placed second at last year’s world championship.
“It’s been life-changing,” he says about discovering sand sculpting in 1996. “It’s part building, part art, part engineering. It’s everything I like to do.”
Want more natural sculptures? Read our article on the Amboy, Illinois Tree Sculptures.