by Joe Shea
October 9, 2011
CAIN, PAUL AND THE TALKING HEADS
VIERA, Fla. -- The flimsy breeze fluffed the impossibly tiny white sand into a billowing, gritty mist. It seeped everywhere, coated everything, and made the simple act of wiping your face feel like sandpaper scraping across your skin.
The artists squinting under the high-voltage Florida sun shrugged off the invasion with bright California-style smiles.
As he meticulously shaped a signature creation for the mid-October "Art of Sand" sand-sculpting festival st Space Coast Stadium here, sculptor Fergus Mulvaney of Dublin, Ireland, an 18-year veteran of the international contests, shrugged off the unrelenting grit. "At the end of the day," he said, "you find sand in places you never imagined possible."
This week, 18-ft.-high, birthday-cake towers of wooden forms, most of them already filled with half a ton of special sand imported from the middle of the state, rose from the emerald infield like Babylonian pyramids. The stadium is the winter home of the Washington Nationals baseball team. Located in Viera, a planned community in Rockledge, Fla.,. it's just 20 minutes south of Cape Canaveral
The squared-off pyramids wait for the deft strokes of the world's most celebrated sand sculptors to transform them into graceful masterpieces for the 2011 Art of Sand Festival Oct. 14-24. The sand-and-sun spectacular is sponsored by the Brevard Cultural Alliance (BCA).
The private, non-profit Alliance, founded in 1975, is the umbrella agency for arts and culture on Florida's Space Coast. BCA hired award-winning Sandsational Sand Sculpting, Inc., of nearby Melbourne, Fla., to transform the stadium into an interactive nine-day exhibit of commanding and captivating works of sand art. After the launches from Cape Canaveral to the Moon, Mars and beyond, the show is one of the biggest attractions on the Space Coast.
The only baseballs on the infield this week, astonishingly, are made of sand. Not just any sand, but material quarried from central Florida in a ridge of glacially deposited, extremely fine angular grains that pack better than round-grained beach sand.
While master sculptress Jill Harris, president of Sandsational, molded a handful of sand into a baseball and actually tossed it up in the air and caught it intact, her partner, Thomas Koet, of the Netherlands, described the special properties of their "ersandtz" building material.
Koet is the 2010 World Champion sand sculptor. Talking about the special sand, he said "It's like marbles and dice. Angular grains will stack and pack like dice and stay together. You cannot stack marbles." A huge sculpture by Koet of bas-relief figures portrayed on the side of two giant dice-like squares won top honors at a Sandestin Beach contest in April.
This diverse group of artists, from far-flung corners of the world like Russia, Singapore, Europe and Canada - and Florida, of course - knows more about sand than any amateurish castle-builder on the beach would care to find out. According to Sandsational's Web site, they are a "team of seasoned creative professionals with backgrounds in industrial design, engineering, fine art, performance art and marketing.".
The artists are equally at home wielding a shovel or a paint brush. They painstakingly build their palette with the brute strength of a front-end loader to lift raw sand to the desired height, then pack it down into a malleable shape in the wooden forms amid the bone-jarring vibrations of a Wacker Rammer Tamper jumping jack. They delicately cut and carve with knives and trowels to shape the sand to their vision.
"I have fun moving the sand with a shovel or carving with a trowel, fork, spoon or a piece of wire," revealed Canadian Marc Lepire, an emphatic bear of a sculptor from Charlesbourg, Quebec. "We use paint brushes, palette knives, a piece of wire or even homemade tools to get the desired cuts." Dressed in a green tank top, hot pants and knee pads - typical beach wear for her - she paused to talk as she worked on a series of sand piles designed to showcase the festival's artistic theme, "Travelers."
"We're going to demonstrate how the pile of sand becomes the finished product, in this case a snail," explained the native of Utrecht, a busy college town in Holland.
"Snails? Because it's slow, and also because the piece will have nice textures and spirals," explained, stepping back a moment to measure the progress of her work.
The artists were asked to interpret the "Travelers" theme through their respective sculptures, which together will use a thousand tons of sand - over 40 truckloads. Among other ideas, Interpretations of the theme include space travel, the way blood travels through the human body, and travel through the seas - all constructed only in sand.
"This sand is clean, very beautiful," she told The American Reporter. "It works fast; you get clean cuts, but it is not strong. That means your design can't have overhangs," she noted. She can demonstrate the difference by sculpting an arm held away from the body and one tucked into the torso of a sand figure. "We have to be a little careful about our design," she added.
Ruseler, a onetime biology student who has been sculpting snow, ice and sand for eight years, admires Florida's sand, but mentioned one interesting drawback.
Ruseler confided she won't dote on her masterpiece, even after working on it for nearly two weeks in the blistering heat. Her good idea and work of art are destined for the county landfill.
"You don't get attached," she reflected. "When this one is done you are already thinking about the next one. You are thinking about building something else."
Brad Goll, a 25-year sand sculptor from Austin, Tex., agreed. "Most of us learned this on the beach with the waves and the tides obliterating what you built," he recalls. "Once you're done, you have your pictures" - and then he's off to another beach.
"Nothing in life is permanent," mused Koet. After meeting at a "Sculpture Fest" 15 years ago, he and Harris have traveled the world making sculptures and organizing events like this one, which was booked almost two years in advance. "Even durable things don't last forever, not even professions. The beauty of the finished piece far outweighs its impermanence."
The pair give back to the community, too. Koet and Melbourne native Harris have created a new sand sculpture every year since 2002 at the Manatee Elementary School in Viera, Fla., as part of Sandsational's annual Art in Public Schools project to promote the fine arts among young people.
The show is family-friendly, so it features sand-sculpting competitions between area schools and businesses, live entertainment, art vendors, sand sculpting classes and demonstrations by the masters. There will also be a special playground where budding young artists can sculpt their own masterpieces using the same sand, which comes from just outside Winter Haven, Fla., southwest of Orlando.
Lynne Brezina, a BCA coordinator, predicted record-breaking attendance this year.
"We're expecting over 60,000 people," she said, well over the 40,000 they had last year. It's in the perfect place, she said. "It's centrally located, and it's the second year. Last year we only had a few schools in the competition. This year we have 13 schools or more on a waiting list.
"This is so great for the kids. It teaches them teamwork and how to work with different materials," she enthused.
But with a winning laugh, she warned parents to watch out for the omnipresent sand.
"My husband volunteered this year to help out with the prep work," she said. "Even the soap in the shower has sand in it now."
The 2011 Art of Sand is scheduled for 10:00AM to 5:00PM daily at Space Coast Stadium, at 5800 Stadium Parkway in Viera, Fla. The event runs from Oct 14 to Oct. 24. Call 321.690.6817 for more information.