They call themselves sand sculptors—artists who build massive structures on the beach for fun and profit, only to watch their work disappear overnight.
Originally published in Coastal Living.
THE LATE 1990S CLOBBERED KIRK RADEMAKER. He was in his mid-40s, a trained carpenter with an fine-art degree, stuck in a stressful job: project manager for a large cabinet shop in Oakland, California. He felt like the bottleneck in an hourglass, squeezed between harried architects and contractors on one end and frustrated co-workers on the other. On top of that, Rademaker’s marriage was falling apart.
His refuge was the Pacific Ocean. Every weekend, Rademaker would jump into his silver Ford wagon and drive through the redwoods to Stinson Beach in Marin County. He’d immerse himself in building sand sculptures, a hobby that had first piqued his interest when his wife bought him a how-to book during a vacation. His small experiments in the sand turned into larger ones: abstract forms that nurtured his creativity and attracted spectators. Sometimes hours would pass without a negative thought. At the end of the day, Rademaker would look up at the cliffs and notice the sunshine for the first time all week. “That black space just got blasted away,” he says.
One afternoon, a small crowd gathered at sunset. Two men in tie-dyed T-shirts walked up to Rademaker. “Hey, do you mind if we stand here by your sculpture and sing a cappella?’” one of them asked. The duo broke into Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World—and at the words “I love you,” everyone joined in. The emotion of the moment overpowered Rademaker. He loved how the beach forced him out of his natural introversion. “With a lot of artists, you work in your own little mad world,” he says. “But sand won’t let you do that. It thrusts you out into the real world. It demands that.”
Rademaker would return to work on Mondays and recount his experiences to the office manager. “You know, Kirk,” she told him, “you live in a fantasy world when you go to the beach.”
“No I don’t,” he remembers saying. “That’s real. What happens to me on the beach is the closest thing to real that I have in my life. This whole synthesized world of cubicles and money and roads—it’s more like a nightmare. It’s not real.”
Soon Rademaker was participating in sand-sculpting competitions around North America. He started to develop his own aesthetic: fantastical machines full of cogs, pulleys, and bolts, with names like “Coin-Operated Enigma.” One day in late 2000, “I’m looking out through these industrial windows onto oil-stained streets,” he says. The phone rang. It was another sand artist inviting him to a competition in Italy. Rademaker had never been to Europe, but he knew his employer couldn’t spare him. “I looked around and said, ‘I can’t go.’ When I said that, I just felt this huge, hollow, crazy feeling. I put the phone down and said, ‘There’s something really wrong with this picture.’” Convinced that he needed to overhaul his life, Rademaker gave himself six months to quit his job and become a full-time professional sand sculptor. And that’s exactly what he did.
MORE THAN A DECADE LATER, RADEMAKER is telling me this story in a hotel lobby on South Padre Island, Texas, where twelve master sculptors have converged for an annual competition called Sand Castle Days. They’ll spend the next three days turning ten-ton piles of silty Gulf Coast sand into finely detailed, crowd-wowing art. Rademaker’s industrial behemoth will compete against mythological and fairy-tale scenes, an Escheresque castle, timely social commentaries, a zombie tableau, and an elegant meditation on flight. There will be one collapse (and reconstruction), two dozen hours of ’70s music, and thousands of photographs taken by visitors.
For beachgoers, it’s a spectacle. For the artists themselves, it feels like a homecoming. No one knows exactly how many people earn their livings as sand sculptors, but estimates hover around 100 or fewer in the United States. Many carve competitively, and often intersect during the annual contest circuit. “We have all this history together,” says Lucinda Wierenga, who lives on South Padre Island. “When we first started hanging out, the motto was, ‘Party, carve, party.’ You had to be able to drink beer until late into the night, get up in the morning, and shovel a bunch of sand without falling over. We’ve all gotten a little older and wiser, and it’s not such a hard-partying group.” Still, on South Padre, that history is evident: The carvers are a boisterous, affectionate pack, prone to goofing off in public. They say they’re living their second childhoods, and in some cases their first ones.
Wierenga, who is 54 and goes by the professional name Sandy Feet, was a high-school English teacher in her twenties when she discovered South Padre, an hour’s drive from her school district. The island became her refuge from work: She enjoyed her students but hated the bureaucracy, all those “rules for the sake of rules.” During one visit, Wierenga met a sand sculptor named Walter McDonald, known to his fans as Amazin’ Walter. “He was building little dribble castles on the beach and using that as a way to meet women,” she says. “It worked for me.” The couple eventually got married, then divorced, but remain friends and business partners. And Wierenga, who had never attended art classes, found her medium in the sand.
“It was a revelation to me when people started walking up and saying, ‘Wow, you’re really an artist.’ That was such a departure from the rest of my history.” As she began winning contests—and getting approached by potential clients—Wierenga’s teaching career seemed less and less relevant. “I’m driving off to school every morning, going, ‘Ahh, I don’t like this anymore,’” she says. “It was a huge leap to walk away from the school contract. My parents called from Michigan, saying, ‘Are you crazy? What about your benefits?’”
But she’s done fine, and since the mid-’80s has developed her own sand-centric business model. She gives carving lessons and runs corporate team-building events in which employees learn to cooperate by sculpting together. She accepts commissions for beach-wedding sculptures and will-you-marry-me castles. She has written three books on the subject. She creates beach billboards both for businesses and for special occasions like anniversaries. She has competed throughout the United Statesand in Italy, Spain, China, Qatar, and South Africa. She was a guest for four days on Live! with Regis & Kelly. She and McDonald produce and sell sand-carving tools. And she runs a one-unit, sand-themed guesthouse called the SandBox Inn.
Like Wierenga, all the sculptors I interviewed have forged their livelihoods in unique ways. Rademaker, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, gets hired by Bay Area companies like Facebook and George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic to build sculptures for corporate theme parties. He carves at trade shows and private gatherings, including a birthday party for Dustin Hoffman’s wife. Last year he was tapped to co-host Sand Masters, a Travel Channel reality series in which a team of sculptors creates masterpieces in exotic locations. (The other co-host is Rademaker’s friend and business partner, Rusty Croft, who is also on South Padre this weekend.)
Rademaker, 60, also gets paid to compete. But he doesn’t consider that a major part of his income. “I come here to have fun and see my friends,” he says. He and Wierenga both say the contests are where they have the fewest creative restraints—the places where they can advance the boundaries of their craft. “I keep trying to push myself,” says Wierenga, “to carve things outside my comfort zone.”
So does everyone else, says Carl Jara, a 38-year-old sculptor from Cleveland who has been competing at the championship level since 1998. “When I first got there, a lot of it was dolphins and castles and teddy bears,” he says. But Jara—inspired by European sculptors who “would rather die than make a mermaid; they would gouge their frickin’ eyes out with a mortising trowel”—decided early on to test the limits. (In 2000, he won an award for a sculpture inspired by Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Now, Jara says, his colleagues are catching up and passing him.
“Most of these guys I’ve known for a decade or more,” he explains. “I’ve seen them go from what sand sculpture had been for thirty years to pushing the limits of what we do—conceptually and visually and technically. If you can hire one of us to do something, you’ve got museum-quality work. We are capable of amazing, amazing things—and now we’re starting to attract new people who are pushing the field farther. You can’t sit on your haunches in this business.”
Jara shows me his sketches for the sculpture he’ll start building tomorrow morning. It features a six-foot-high desert-parched bull’s skull decorated with Mexican-style icons, including a sunburst with a large dollar sign in the middle. Draped over the horns is a billowy veil, and at the base sits a bed of flowers. Flanking the skull are two grinning, life-size skeletons: a male financier and a female politician. They sit on chairs and hold champagne flutes. “It’s all about Occupy Wall Street, but it’s also about Day of the Dead,” Jara says. He plans to make the sculpture simple enough that a casual viewer can enjoy it just for its beauty. “But I also want it to be so incredibly complex and deep that if you really, really look into it, you’ll get more and more information.”
THE COMPETITION ON SOUTH PADRE starts at 8 a.m. Thursday. As the crowd grows throughout the week’s end, I watch the sculptures slowly emerge. Most begin as wet stacks of sand, built in wedding-cake layers with rectangular and cylindrical molds. Into those undifferentiated towers, the sculptors start to carve—first basic shapes, then details, layer by layer, finer and finer. Jara sculpts a piggy bank on his financier’s lap, giving the tail a tight little curl. On the politician’s lap he carves a book called Politics for Dummys (“a cheap knockoff of Politics for Dummies,” he says). Jara decides the politician’s feet are too clunky, so he chops them up and starts again. In the final hour, he and all the artists rake out the peripheries, creating rough-hewn bases that contrast with the smooth sculptures.
At 4:30 p.m. Saturday, time is called. The sculptors receive paper ballots and instructions for ranking one another’s work. An hour later, the winners are announced. Jara’s Day of the Dead-themed opus wins the grand prize. Kirk Rademaker takes second with a fantastical machine based on a steel saw. Lucinda Wierenga places fourth. She has created a parabola-shaped Wall Street skyline, skyscrapers flanking the New York Stock Exchange. A waking giant fills the middle space, and he’s being overrun by hundreds of smaller figures. “That’s the little people,” I had heard a spectator tell her mother. “That’s us.”
That night, the artists have dinner at a nearby hotel. By the time the plates are cleared, they’re throwing paper airplanes at one another like the overgrown kids they profess to be. They know their sculptures have already started to degrade. Within a week, the effects of weather and grubby hands will be obvious. In another few weeks, they’ll probably be gone. “That’s one of the hardest things we have to learn—to let go,” Wierenga says.
Jara doesn’t mind the impermanence. To him, sand sculpting is more like theater than like bronze casting—and that, ironically, gives him more control. “Nobody else but me,” he says, “will ever make a dime off of my work.”
As for Rademaker, yielding to that transience has shaken up his entire value system. It has also given him the inner peace that once eluded him.
“I spent the first 50 years of my life investing in things I thought would last, and realizing that nothing really does,” he says. “As soon as I abandoned that notion, this whole world opened up to me. I embraced the temporary, and all of a sudden I’m traveling all over the world, I’m meeting people, I’m having these experiences. Thank God this is temporary. That’s what saved me.”