You are sitting with your back to the land, sitting hunched over, knees drawn to your chest, your bare feet half-buried in sand. . . . You dig your hands into the sand and let it dribble out between your fingers. . . . The sand feels good. It invites you to squeeze it, mold it. You begin idly to pile up a shapeless mound and pat it down. . . .
Sandcastles. That's how humbly they begin, according to "Sandcastles," a book by Joseph Allen, Don McQuiston, Debra McQuiston and Marshall Harrington. But the end products aren't humble at all. Often they are the stuff of Cinderella's dreams--massive, fortified mansions with towers and turrets and the look of the Age of Chivalry about them.
Works of Ease
"Sandcastles are born in the imagination," continues author Allen and, as for skills, "they are developed with reasonable ease in a pleasant environment."
Those wanting to see just how pleasant might head for Orange County this weekend, for there is a sand-sculpture contest on a tawny-colored crescent of San Clemente Beach. For this moment in modern time, Gothic spires will rise again, making the beach look like some sort of medieval housing development. For this moment, the beach just north of San Clemente pier will look as if Merlin has waved a magic wand and made it Camelot.
Sand-sculpture events--some with cash prizes, some offering trophies for "best of beach"--are not uncommon on California's sandy stretches. In the area from San Diego to Santa Barbara alone, there will be nine of them this summer and fall.
Workers in sand don't only build castles, of course. While there will be crenelations and arches galore, common too--judging from such contests in the last few years--are modern skyscrapers, mermaids, alligators, octopuses, E.T., dinosaurs, dragons, even the lost city of Atlantis.
The latter, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest sand sculpture at 48,000 tons, was built in Florida. It's builder, Gerry Kirk, is a Californian, though. "We built it at Treasure Island," he said, "and it towered 52.81 feet."
Kirk, owner of the Solana Beach-based Sand Sculptors International, might well be called a sand-sculpting pioneer. He's been doing it "close to 20 years. I've been working in sand since the early '70s," he said. He "went professional" in 1981 and, besides castles, over the years he's replicated just about everything imaginable in sand: a 27-ton medieval cathedral, a 60-ton monolith of six famous psychiatrists (for an American Psychiatric Assn. convention), a 150-ton re-creation of Jerusalem for Hollywood's Hope Lutheran Church, a three-ton Hotel del Coronado, a composite of San Diego's architecture and Super Bowl XXII logo including Broncos' and Redskins' helmets (displayed at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium during this year's Super Bowl), "Saturn Moon Base II" (a 16-ton sculpture on display for a year at Sea Coast Square in San Diego), an 11 1/2-ton copy of Princess Cruise Line's Love Boat, some of Sea World's animals, a 15-ton America's Cup. . . . The list goes on.
At present, Kirk and his associates hold six national and three world sand-sculpting championships. They also hold records for the longest (12 miles) and longest-standing (1 year, 10 months) sand sculptures as well as the height record for indoor sand sculptures (17 feet, 7 inches).
What makes a good sand sculptor? Kirk has a general contractor's license, he attended an art school and has a degree in art from San Diego State.
"I've been an artist all my life," he said.
And, while he thinks working in sand is, well, temporary, he doesn't see it as a waste of artistic ability. "This is probably a phase," he says with a laugh. "Picasso went through a blue period; I'm going through my sand period."
His own credentials aside, Kirk describes sand sculpting as child's play, in a way. "If you've ever filled a pail with damp sand, dumped it on the beach to make a round tower, then carved out tunnels with your hands, you've sculpted sand." It's as simple as that.
"Anywhere you can find sand and water, you can build a castle," Kirk says, "and you don't have to have a particular talent. We've worked with people with no art background, who simply couldn't cope with the two dimensions of line on paper. With the three dimensions of sand, they can look from several different angles, even from above, and they can really see what they're doing."