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JAUNTS : World's Tallest Sand Sculpture Being Carved Out at Mall : A gritty look at drama, dance, music and art takes shape in a slow progression downward.

March 09, 1995|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There was no doubt it was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was seated at the piano with a whimsical look on his face and a quill pen in his hand. Sheets of music lay before him, along with a metronome and a vase of flowers.

The mind-boggling thing was that this life-size Mozart was solid sand. The feather on the pen: sand. The fine grain of the wood piano, the flowers: all sand.

Mozart is only a slice from an amazing three-story sand sculpture that has been hand-crafted before shoppers' eyes the last six weeks at The Oaks mall.

Now in the final stages, the sculpture is an ode to art--the mall's way of celebrating the opening of the Civic Arts Plaza and recognizing arts in the community.

By the time sculptor Todd Vander Pluym and his crew are finished with the piece, it will break the world's record for the tallest indoor sand sculpture. It will stay up until June.

You have to see it to believe that this massive work of art--which takes up the entire center courtyard of the mall--is one solid hunk of sand. In fact, Vander Pluym spends much of his time telling a stream of onlookers just that.

What they don't know is that this 54-year-old architect-turned-sand-sculptor works without a blueprint or plans. He started with the general concept the mall wanted and went from there.

"It almost orchestrated itself," said Vander Pluym, who likes to think of his work as performance art. He and his crew are there daily, working 10 to 12 hours.

At the peak of the sculpture, he has entwined the nine muses of Greek mythology who presided over the arts and sciences. Down below, in four wings, he has created scenes reflecting drama, dance, music and art. In one, Mozart composes while Ludwig Van Beethoven turns from his desk, as if about to speak. In another, three theater-goers are enjoying a performance at London's Globe Theater, famous in William Shakespeare's day.

"I wanted to have some fun with it," Vander Pluym said of the Globe scene. So he added another dimension to the scene, with one theater-goer touching his eye, another her mouth, etc., in see-no-evil, speak-no-evil fashion.

The various scenes depict Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, Salvador Dali, even Andy Warhol. As of last week Vander Pluym was still mapping out one of the scenes in his head--maybe a hefty opera singer in the midst of some little ballerinas.

As president of Redondo Beach-based Sand Sculptors International, he has sculpted everything from dinosaurs and Disney characters to Chryslers and Cadillacs, all over the world.

He and his crew have hit some obstacles, like a monsoon in Japan. Then there was the earthquake almost three weeks ago that rattled the Conejo Valley as the crew was sculpting the top of the mall sculpture.

"It sheared off--part of it slid down," Vander Pluym said. They had to rebuild it.

He has had lots of help, in addition to his crew of three, who, like Vander Pluym, have won a slew of national and international sand-sculpting titles. More than 50 volunteers also pitched in.

It all began with the delivery of 270 tons of sand. Not just any sand, but the finest textured sand Vander Pluym can get his hands on. "Sand is as different as people," he said.

Then the sand is watered down and compressed into various-sized wooden forms, which are stacked on top of each other much like a wedding cake. It's a tricky process. Moisture control is critical. Nothing besides water is used to hold the sand together.

The artists begin carving the damp sand at the top, removing the forms as they move down to each lower level. They use sculpting tools as diverse as watermelon scoops, plasterer's trowels and cake decorating equipment. The art hardens as it dries, sometimes with the aid of a hair dryer propped on a pole.

Although the crew works fast, the detail etched into every section of the giant sculpture is impressive--the pupils of the eye, the ruffles on clothing, the bristles of the artist's paintbrushes, the squeezed and twisted tubes of oil paint.

Vander Pluym is no newcomer to this art. He has been creating sand sculptures since he was a child. In college he picked up degrees in fine arts and architectural design.

He owned his own architectural firm and did sand sculpture competition for fun until rock 'n' roll music czar Dick Clark commissioned him to do one for his TV show in 1976. He chucked his architectural business in 1981 and went into sand full-time.

Since then, he and his crew have built more than 300 sand sculptures at malls, state fairs and conventions and for movies. He has done 18 jobs for Disney.

They are all different, but one thing they have in common is that eventually they come down. Does that bother him, to lose something some people consider museum-quality?

No, the camera preserves it forever. That's good enough for Vander Pluym. "How many works of art do people actually look at?" he said. "Everyone sees them in photos."

Details

* WHAT: Giant sand sculpture.

* WHERE: The Oaks shopping center, Center Court, 222 W. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Sculpture, nearly complete, will stand until June. Mall hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., weekdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

* FYI: Customer service booth next to the sculpture has handout information about the sculpture and the characters and scenes featured.

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