Sandsational! Sand Sculptures on the Coast
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Sandsational! Texas beaches inspire art and architecture
By Helen Bryant
What makes Texas sand so magical that children, adults, and even professional artists can’t wait to dig their hands into it and build something? “Sand here is fine-grained and sticky from the natural clay and silt carried to the Gulf from the Mississippi River,” says South Padre Island sand sculptor Lucinda Wierenga.
The urge to build on the beach seems almost universal. Walk along the shoreline and you’ll see remnants of drip castles and conical structures crafted from upended sand pails. You might notice a hole that, before high tide started to melt it away, served as a moat.
But some sandcastle builders aim for higher art. Professional sand sculptors from all over the United States and Canada flock to contests and festivals here.
“I love traveling to Texas for many reasons,” says Karen Fralich of Burlington, Ontario, who has consistently placed in both the South Padre Island and Port Aransas festivals for 11 years. “The wonderful people, including all my sand-sculptor friends, and the well-run, laid-back atmosphere of the festivals, the excellent sculpting quality of the beach sand, the huge beaches, great fishing—and all that Texas hot sauce.”
“Once people get down here, they love our beach,” says South Padre Island sand sculptor Walter McDonald, better known as The Amazin’ Walter.
Wierenga, who founded South Padre Island’s contest with McDonald, sums up the Texas beach allure this way: “Warm weather when it’s cold elsewhere, and superior sand-sculpting material have a lot to do with it, of course. But it also takes Texan appreciation and support of home-grown art.”
Perhaps the ultimate validation of Texas sand is that real architects like to build with it—at least once a year—at a special event created just for them: the American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition. The contest celebrates its 25th year in Galveston on June 4.
Only architectural teams, perhaps with a construction professional or two on the team, can enter this contest. “This is for architects and engineers,” says Mat Wolff, associate director of AIA Houston, which sponsors the contest. “It’s an opportunity for our members to go out and have some fun, network, and team-build. And it’s a chance to promote architects and explain why they’re important.” Most of the teams—75 are expected this year—hail from Houston, with a few traveling from Texas cities such as Austin and San Antonio.
Whereas professional sand sculptors can win thousands of dollars in their competitions, the winner of AIA takes home no cash. Instead, the team wins a Golden Bucket sculpture and runners-up get silver and bronze shovels.
“It is all for the glory and bragging rights,” Wolff says.
The architects come up with an idea, build forms out of wood, plastic pipe, or other structural materials, then gather on the appointed day (hoping that it’s a sunny one) to pack those forms full of sand, remove the forms, and hope fervently that the whole thing doesn’t come tumbling down.
“All they’re given is a huge pile of sand,” Wolff says. Teams may mix the pure Galveston sand only with water before packing it into their molds.
“There can be no form work inside it, and we no longer allow any fossil fuel-driven water pumps,” Wolff says. Bicycle pumps and other crafty water-squirting methods are permitted. “It’s actually another component of the competition to see how people move water from the Gulf to the site.”
Architect Perry Seeberger of Seeberger and Associates in Houston likes the competition’s simplicity. “It’s kind of pure and natural,” he says. “It’s just sand and water and your creativity.”
Even professional sand sculptors watch the Galveston event with interest.
“It is one of the largest non-professional events in the world and draws a very large crowd,” Wierenga says. “That is good for sand-sculpting and helps make Texans more sophisticated and discerning spectators—and it can be great inspiration for beachgoers to give sand play a go.”
Tens of thousands of spectators watch the architects build their works of art (few teams build actual castles) and cheer for their favorites.
“It’s nice for architects to put on a show for the public,” Seeberger says. “It’s really big. Their creations string out on the beach for miles and attract 30,000 to 40,000 people.”
Eight categories of competition include best entertainment theme, best sports theme, most patriotic theme, most complex, best traditional sandcastle, best architecture, most hilarious, and most lifelike. The overall winner for the day takes home the Golden Bucket.
Last year, that was Matrix Spencer Architects of Houston, whose team built a sculpture titled “Train Your Dragon.”
“It was a parody of the movie,” says architect Ken Cvejanovich, who headed the sculpting team. “There was a Viking that didn’t look much like a Viking, but the dragon on the train looked like a dragon. And the castle looked like a castle.” He said his office started kicking around ideas three months before the competition, and for his team of about 30, “putting it together was a great team morale booster and a lot of fun.”
Matrix Spencer has been competing for about 20 years, and its members know how to wield putty knives to carve details into the sculpture.
“It’s fun competing against your peers,” he says. “It’s an artistic event, but we don’t usually consider ourselves artists.”
Only once has a thunderstorm rained out the competition, and Cvejanovich says the teams don’t sweat it.
“You can’t worry about things that are beyond your control,” he says. Besides, all the competitors know the ephemeral nature of this particular form of architecture.
From the June 2011 issue.