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Paul Dean

A Reigning King With True Grit

September 12, 1987|Paul Dean

General contractor Gerry Kirk uses bulldozers, pneumatic hammers, truck cranes, all the adult tools of a construction business that is absolute child's play.

He builds sand castles.

But not those sand castles of our fumbling summers, those lopsided humps with Dixie cups for turrets and moats that never held water.

Kirk visualizes and then packs and then sculpts his sand castles.

Also sand mansions, chateaux, manors, villas, forts, citadels, palaces and all architectural icons from Notre Dame Cathedral through the schloss at Heidelburg to the temple of Angkor Wat.

Last year he bulldozed, pounded and carved 48,000 tons of beach at Treasure Island, Fla., into the City of Atlantis. It rose five stories and stands in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's tallest sand sculpture.

This year, Kirk, 49, of Solano Beach wanted to top himself by building Camelot at Pacific Beach. But storms removed more sand than they returned and scraping up enough to build King Arthur's enchanted spot would have dropped the entire beach below the high-tide mark.

Next week, Kirk will join 12 professional sculptors and 1,500 volunteers building the United Way Centennial Sandcastle at Seal Beach. They will raise 56 structures encompassing the history of architecture. From the Pyramids to the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

And next year, in grit-rich Galveston, Tex., Kirby will return to Camelot and his world record attempt. With a sponsors' budget of $600,000. With 36 sous sculptors building a seven-story structure. With the Beach Boys singing while they scrape.

Such creations--plus nine world and national championships and a $90,000 annual income for his Sand Sculptors International--have crowned Kirk king of the sand castlers. But is it art, this painstaking crafting of something so temporary and so vulnerable to wind, tide and wet dogs? Or is it merely to serious sculpture what singing telegrams are to opera?

It is art, Kirk insists, by all its dimensions. By every challenge of the medium and technique.

"Sand is monochromatic so what you're working with is shapes and shadow," explained Kirk. "The deeper you carve, the better your play on light and that's pure art.

"The major difference is that with sand, it (sculpture) is done in seconds and the rewards are instantaneous. But why should that make the end result any less artistic?"

In addition, he said, the potential for international communication through sand sculpture is as high as any understanding achieved through "La Boheme" or the Bolshoi. "I want to go to Russia, maybe the Southern Crimea and do St. Basil's Church," he said. "With sand sculpture, you get to meet the real people. That's when politics melt away. That's what breaks down resistance between peoples."

Kirk, who studied painting and sculpture before opting for the higher profit margins of custom home construction, was not a born sandman. His first creation, in fact, was a plaster castle built in the wrong spot in grade school. It had to be chiseled from the sink.

Then, in 1976, at a Labor Day beach party with friends--a designer, a ceramist--he was part of a team that built a Mt. Kilimanjaro with Budweiser battlements.

Kirk was hooked by "the quick visual impact . . . the speed of being able to create something . . . with the element of a game.

"If it fell down, you could immediately put it back up."

Today, using wet sand mechanically compacted until it is more sandstone than sand, Kirk has few problems with crumbling castles. He will also use a 10% glue solution as size, should free-standing forms start to quiver.

That's what he used in May when he built sand busts of Jung, Freud and others for a Chicago meeting of the American Psychiatric Assn.

"Not one psychiatrist asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up," said Kirk.

United Way Centennial Sandcastle, north of Seal Beach Municipal Pier, Sept. 18-21, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sept. 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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