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Castles in the Sand


Lily, winner of the 2002 Best of Show award by the Sun Valley Group employees.
  • Lily, winner of the 2002 Best of Show award by the Sun Valley Group employees.

I had no idea how far sand sculpture had come until Carol Vander Meer contacted me about the Friends of the Dunes annual Sand Sculpture Festival. She suggested googling "sand sculpture" to see what kinds of things people are creating with this earthy medium. Warning: These are not the plastic bucket sandcastles you made when you were a kid.

You will find numerous pages with tips and tricks for sculpting -- Carol suggests in particular. The site includes a YouTube short by sandy feet (intentionally uncapitalized), who seems to be something of a celebrity among sand sculptors. "Sand is such cool stuff," she declares. "It's everywhere and you can make something with it really fast, and if it doesn't turn out, you can smash it down and rebuild it into something you like better."

Inspiration is provided by photos of some amazing sand sculptures enthusiasts are creating. How about the Eiffel Tower? Cinderella's pumpkin chariot waiting for her in front of a turreted castle? A larger-than-life hockey goalie? Some of these creations are a bit too slick for my taste, but they are certainly feats of technical genius.

Of course the best thing to do is to get out on a beach and make a sculpture yourself, and you can do just that on June 24 at the Friends of the Dunes 12th Annual Sand Sculpture Festival at the Manila Community Center starting at 8 a.m. and running until 3 p.m.

Carol Anderson has been one of the judges for the Manila competition for the past few years. She started out doing it when she lived in the community and stuck with it after she moved from the area because she enjoyed it so much. "There's so much creativity," she says, "people put their hearts and souls into it." She describes the competition as fierce, but says that the atmosphere is very friendly. There are lots of award categories and practically everyone goes home with something -- if not an award, then a sense of accomplishment.

Some of the folks who come are really serious, like Xande, who with her brother David makes up the Moonstone Beach Sandcastle Club. If you've seen large architectural sand sculptures at Moonstone, or the remnants thereof, it's likely they are responsible. She's been sandcastling for the past 15 years and organized Tiffany's Sandcastle Competition on Clam Beach for 10 years.

Xande won't be able to make the Manila competition this year, but she offers me some helpful technical advice about that beach. Not all sand is created equal; when you've been sculpting it for a while, you start to notice the differences. She suggests keeping a low profile on your Manila beach sculpture because the sand there is round. "It's like building with marbles," she says, as opposed to the sharp edges that characterize sand that's ideal for taller sculptures. She explains that sand sculpting is actually quite simple. "You need sand, water, pack it nicely and then just carve away what isn't part of your sculpture." To paraphrase Michelangelo, "Every pile of sand has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."

Xande suggests bringing a spray bottle to keep things moist, especially on a sunny day, and warns: Don't get too attached to your sculpture. Remember, it will be washed away by the next high tide. That's the beauty of this ephemeral art form: It's humbling. You can work really hard on it, but if some kid comes along and wants to climb into the backseat of the '57 Chevy you're building (which is exactly what happened to Xande) ... well, you can just go with it or rebuild. While you may fantasize about clocking the kid on the head, in reality it's not an option.

Sand work can be the private endeavor of a lone artist, but it's a unique medium in that it also lends itself well to participatory art. Nora Winge, who owns Willows and Dunes Family Childcare, has participated with a team of parents and family members for the past five or six years as an alternative to the standard school family picnic. Her students, who range in age from 1 to 5, usually play on the beach nearby, while parents, family members and the pre-school staff make the sculpture. "We've gotten an award every year," she says.

There are a variety of styles from which to choose. Xande favors an architectural style, but as she said, the sand at Manila is not ideal for tall buildings. A more organic, flowing style is probably better there. There's the found-object style in which you incorporate bits of beach debris in your work, or you can go purist and keep it all sand. Xande believes that the best sculptures tell a story, but I would argue that an abstract piece with a focus on design works just as well.

Did I mention that this is all in support of a good cause, a benefit for the Bay to Dunes School Education Program, where kids learn about dune ecology? There's really no reason not to come and discover your own inner sand artist. Scrounge around in your kitchen for some old utensils that show good carving potential and come on down with your buckets. For details and inspiration go to the Friends website,, and click on the "I dig sand" logo. I'm sold on it. I'm going to be there with my 4-year-old and maybe a couple other mom-and-kid pairs. It should be interesting to see what we come up with. Hope to see you there.


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