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Sand Dollars

Keeping close watch on the tide, sand sculptors create fleeting works of art

A fairy-tale castle embellished with towers and guarded by a dragon rises in front of the waves surging to the South Padre Island seawall during Sand Castle Days. Intent on building fantastic but fleeting works of art, amateur and professional sand sculptors dig in at this October competition and also at Port Aransas’ Texas SandFest in April.

“It’s simple to get started: Get a shovel, dig down until you hit water, widen the hole, and jump in,” says Lori Darlin’, who gives free sand castle classes at South Padre’s annual beach festival. Shaded by a battered straw hat, Lori kneels in a puddle of seawater and demonstrates how to use both hands as a scoop, pulling the wet sand toward you and quickly transferring it to your castle site. She stacks the sand, smoothing off the top quickly and repeating the process until she makes what looks like a tall stack of pancakes. Several stacks in a line make a wall. Her tools are simple: disposable plastic knives (to cut stairs and pointed towers) and spoons (to scoop out windows and balconies).

Adopting Lori’s stacking, slicing and scooping techniques, amateurs within 30 minutes are crafting castles to be proud of, masterpieces that last until the tide surges in. Amy and Levi Hardy of El Paso bring their children, Summer, 8, and Sterling, 6, to Sand Castle Days every year. At home, the kids have transferred most of the family’s silverware to their sandbox, their mother says. She adds that on their next trip here, she’d like her children to get private lessons with Sandy Feet, a professional sand sculptor who is competing in Sand Castle Days. Feet, whose real name is Lucinda Wierenga, is author of the tell-all book Sandcastles Made Simple: Step-by-Step Instructions, Tips, and Tricks for Building Sensational Sand Creations.

Years of experience and commitment separate week-on-the-beach amateurs from Sandy Feet and the 23 other master sculptors invited to participate in Sand Castle Days’ Masters of Sand contest, a South Padre Island event with single and duo divisions that’s just one stop on a round of international competitions and exhibitions for the pros. Port Aransas’ Texas SandFest ranks as the largest Texas sand competition with 29 masters and more than 200 amateurs. At both events, the pros first work together on a showpiece demonstration of sand. Then for three days they concentrate on building short-lived masterpieces that draw public admiration—and official prizes for both pros and amateurs totaling more than $10,000 at South Padre and more than $7,000 at Port A.

On South Padre, between 8 and 12 tons of sand, strengthened by a clay and water mix, are mounded up for each of the pros. Sturdy, flexible, plastic fabric restrains the lower sections of the mounds to enable the artists to work from the top down.

Pro Christy McDonald compares sand sculpting to cooking: “Everybody has different recipes and techniques. I have a theme and just go free-form.” She chooses a serving spoon to hollow out eyes for the skulls surrounding her pirate castle. Her trowel cuts out pie-shaped wedges for noses. She sprays a solution of Elmer’s Glue and water, known as windscreen, over her finished arches (a trademark, given the McDonald name). Windscreen is like the hard coating on an M&M, Christy explains. It keeps the sand from melting or blowing away.

Christy, part of a sand-sculpting dynasty, knows her sand. Her father is “Amazin’ Walter” McDonald, the Grand Poohbah of the Sons of the Beach who help run the South Padre Island event. Amazin’ Walter, who tops his long white hair with a pith helmet and whose Santa Claus-like beard flies in the breeze, heads a committee that decides which sand pros will enliven the South Padre contest. “We review photos and sort out who we want to invite to compete,” he says. “The sculptors come because we have a reputation for being fun.” Sand Castle Days nurtures new talent with the Texas State Championship for amateur sand sculptors. “We’re hoping to breed future masters,” he says.

Launched 22 years ago, Sand Castle Days is one of five U.S. qualifying events for the World Championship of Sand Sculpting, according to Suzanne Altamare, a championship coordinator. This year’s event, scheduled from September 7 through October 3 in Federal Way, Washington, will bring together 76 competitors, including solo, doubles and team. Port Aransas’ Texas SandFest, which celebrates its 14th year in April, is a qualifying event, too, chosen because of the excellence of its competitors and hospitality. “Once you reach a certain level, sand sculptors are paid to show up and compete for prizes,” Suzanne says. Many are full-time artists who sculpt in ice, wood or metal and compete in about six sand events a year.

Meanwhile, hustling between South Padre’s emerging castles, Dennis Barrett describes himself as a sand slave, a volunteer at the beck and call of the sand masters. “None of the glory and all of the work,” he says, grinning. Dennis identifies the short, antenna-like wires sticking out of the sand sculptures’ highest points: “They keep gulls from perching on top and collapsing the whole thing.”

The sand masters work steadily, far enough away from the spectators to discourage casual conversation. The competition is on the clock, and the sculptors need the full allotment of 22 hours spread over three days. “Typically it’s a scramble to finish in time,” says Matt Long. He and duo partner Andy Gertler had built a scale model of their twinned castles sculpture before leaving New York. It never comes out exactly as planned, Matt admits.

Sand carvings of castles and of human faces exert an undeniable appeal. That’s apparent from the crowds that linger or even park a beach chair on the seawall to observe art in action. Canadian Karen Fralick, a three-time world champion, considers sand sculpting an out-of-control hobby that became a full-time job that pays her to play in the sand on beaches around the world. Her fabulous sculpture of a medieval beauty with a Puss in Boots character, titled “Wanted: Ye Catcher of Mice,” wins the solo category and a People’s Choice award at Sand Castle Days. A Dutch couple wins the team event with a dreamy mermaid, while a humorous sculpture of pirates and a shark captures the team People’s Choice.

Over at the amateur contests, set closer to the incoming tide, Vickye Lambdin and the San Marcos Suns team are fighting storm-driven waves and high winds. Their Great Wall and terra-cotta warrior sand sculptures have fallen victim to Mother Nature. “You have to go with the flow,” says Vickye, who has been an amateur participant for 20 years. “No kids come with us anymore, but we can still play.”

Tom Danczek’s multi-towered castle wins him a second Texas State Championship because he knows what the judges look for: “The more you carve, the better. You’re judged on cut-throughs, height and amount of detail.”

Follow the experts’ advice on your next trip to a Texas beach: Have fun, build it and watch the tide come in.

Eileen Mattei wrote about the Southwest Border Fence in the December 2009 issue of Texas Co-op Power.