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Video: Artists play in the sand — for sport

By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/29/2010 7:29:26 AM ET 2010-09-29T11:29:26

Like time itself, a sand sculpture is inherently fleeting. For a brief period it stands there, tall and majestic, intricate and awe-inspiring — and then, as it's buffeted by the elements, it disappears.

How do the world's master sand sculptors deal with the transient nature of their craft?

"If the photos come out and the check clears, I'm OK with it," joked Damon Farmer, 61, of Kentucky.

Image: "Connected" sand sculpture
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Damon Langlois of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, puts finishing touches on Team Sand Boxers' "Connected," a Pacific Northwest-themed sculpture.

Farmer was one of about 60 fun-loving artists from 17 countries who recently descended on a drizzly Seattle suburb to participate in the annual World Championship of Sand Sculpting. If the event's name conjures up images of standard sand castles built on the beach, think again.

Given license to go nuts with tons of glacial till, these precision sculptors spent days creating serious, high-caliber art. Charlie Beaulieu, 51, director of the World Championship event and a world champion sand sculptor himself several times over, said he was blown away by their creations.

"I see sand sculpting progressing from castles and dragons into museum pieces that could be cast in marble or stone," Beaulieu said. "It's becoming a truly authentic, solid art form."

'Ability of an athlete, skill of a surgeon'
Indeed, over the past 25 years or so, sand sculpting has come into its own both as an art form and as a way to make a decent living for a small band of high-end sculptors around the world. These artists crisscross the planet making mind-blowing creations out of sand for corporate clients, big events and international competitions — and theirs is such a small world that they bump into each other all over the place.

Go pound sand

Doc Reiss, one of the organizers of the World Championship of Sand Sculpting, described this year's main event in Federal Way, Wash., as an extra-special "gathering of the clan."

"The best of the best are here," Reiss said. "They're competitors, but there's real camaraderie between them. They'll stop what they're doing and help each other."

Some — but not all — of these artists have training in fields such architecture, engineering and landscape design, and a few are actually surgeons. Many are accomplished sculptors who also work with wood, stone, ceramics and ice. And all of them have one thing in common: In order to create such massive sand sculptures, they have to be in excellent physical shape. Each artist must tackle the back-breaking challenge of shoveling, packing and pounding tons and tons and tons of sand on a tight deadline.

The first day of the World Championship competition is known as the "pound up" day. Sand sculptors ranging in age from 24 to 68 spend that day shoveling more than 33,000 pounds of sand into wooden forms that eventually get removed. The objective: To get the sand wet and compact it down, down, down so it becomes firm and stable enough to be transformed into high-flying, whimsical shapes.

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Video: Artists play in the sand — for sport (on this page)

Artists don't use beach sand; it tends to fall apart more easily because each granule has rounded, eroded edges after being worn down by waves. Instead, they use special sand purchased with the event in mind: A glacial till deposited in the last ice age.

"Microscopically this sand is very jagged," event organizer Reiss explained. "This is how we're able to get the verticality, or the ability to get so tall. ...

"This is an art sport," Reiss continued. "You have to have the physical ability of an athlete and the skill and precision of a surgeon."

After the pound up is finished, artists climb to the top of their creations, remove the first wooden forms and start carving. They either work alone on solo creations, or tackle projects as part of doubles teams or larger teams of four to six people.

They have four long and intense days to complete their creations.

Sand changed course of his life
Artist Paul Hoggard, 45, who originally hails from England, still remembers his first foray into sand sculpting almost 20 years ago.

"It all began while I was traveling in India," he said. "I was sitting there in paradise, on a sandy beach complete with a coconut tree, and I started to play in the sand like a child. All of a sudden I saw a face looking back at me. It was quite a powerful experience, actually."

Photos: From sand to sculpture (on this page)

Hoggard was hooked. The more involved he became in sand sculpting, the more doors opened to him. Sand sculpting has made it possible for him to travel all over the world and make a good living. (A single race car he sculpted out of sand for a corporate client brought in $15,000, for example.) In 2000, the Queen of England herself commissioned a sand sculpture from Hoggard. She requested a farm scene, so he sculpted a mother pig nursing 10 baby piglets. He got to present it to Her Majesty in person.

Image: Remy Geerts sand sculpting
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
With surgeon-like precision, Remy Geerts, an artist who is originally from the Netherlands, works on her sculpture, "The Abundance of Harvest." Geerts lives on a farm in Bulgaria with her "sand man," artist Paul Hoggard.

"She said, 'Oh, did you make that?' and I said, 'Yes, I did!'" Hoggard recalled with a big smile.

Sand continued to pay big dividends in Hoggard's life in 2003. That's when he met his future "sand woman," Remy Geerts, now 39, who is originally from the Netherlands. They were both at a big sand-sculpture theme park at the time.

"I was up on a 62-foot pile of sand when I saw her," Hoggard said. "I like to tell people that we fell in love on the biggest pile of sand in Europe."

Today the couple live on a farm they bought in Bulgaria with their sand-sculpting earnings.

"We live a quiet, healthy life growing our own food on our farm," Hoggard said.

Sand vs. ice
Marc Lepire, 37, of Quebec, Canada, began sculpting sand more than 10 years ago, but for most of his life his first love has been ice sculpting.

"I did my first ice sculpture when I was 13 years old," he said. "So for about 24 years now, I've been doing ice sculpting almost every single day."

First-person gallery: Your best sand sculptures (on this page)

Lepire is so good at his craft that he's called upon each year to carve the furniture for the Ice Hotel in Quebec. "I work 12 to 15 hours a day, no break, for two months from the first week in December until the last week in January," Lepire said of his contributions to the 75-bedroom hotel, which is constructed almost completely out of ice. "Beds, desks, chairs — you name it, I carve it."

Image: Marc Lepire sand sculpting
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Marc Lepire of Quebec works on his sculpture, called "Krazy." The sculpture was inspired by a character in the movie "Zombieland" that Lepire watched with his son days before the World Championship.

Despite his passion for ice, Lepire said sand definitely has its advantages. Sand sculpting allows him to work outside in beautiful places, travel all over the world and make great friends.

"I swear, I've seen these same people here all around the world," Lepire said at the World Championship.

During the competition, he participated in the solo division and meticulously carved a scary-looking clown.

"Three days ago I watched the movie 'Zombieland' with my son, and that's how I got this idea — to make a bad clown with a big chainsaw!" he said.

Lepire said he fully embraces the temporary nature of creating sculptures out of sand and ice.

"I'll also do wood for more money, but with a wood sculpture you have to take care of it, put it somewhere — pah!" Lepire said. "The best kind of art is temporary. Really, it is. You just get a new block of ice or some new sand and start again."

Saying goodbye
The ephemeral quality of sand sculpting is actually quite a draw for many master sculptors.

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"It's about the process of creation, that's what the enjoyable bit is," artist Hoggard said. "That's where we lose ourselves, that's where we forget about our bodies and we just work. ... We're attached to the process of making sculptures but not attached to the end result at all."

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Organizers of the World Championship likened the art form to theater, or to a championship sporting event — once it's over, it's over.

"I think it's just like life itself — if you don't live in the moment you can't count on tomorrow coming around and supplying you with what you might miss today," event director Beaulieu said. "Go out and enjoy every day to the fullest."

Still, saying goodbye can be hard, even if it's unavoidable.

"It's always a lesson in letting go," said Farmer, the sculptor from Kentucky. "You do get attached, but you just have to let go."

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Photos: From sand to sculpture

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  1. At the 2010 World Championship of Sand Sculpting, held from Sept. 8 to Oct. 3, artists compete for the top title in three categories: solo, double and teams.

    Racing against the clock, members of Team Sandboxers fill wood forms with sand and water during the "pound up" stage of the Federal Way, Wash., event. The teams have six hours to pound their sand into solid cubes suitable for carving. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. From left to right, Katie Korning, Jeff Strong and Kirk Rademaker of Team USA work on "Open Mind." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. After removing the wooden forms, Fergus Mulvany begins carving his sculpture. He will continue to carve for three more days, about eight hours a day. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. After making a cut, Helena Bangert from Amsterdam blows loose sand off her piece, "Walking Through." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A member of Washington-based team Orbital Sanders works on a sculpture called "Missing Links." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Spectators watch Remy Geerts of The Netherlands work on her sculpture, "The Abundance of Harvest." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Dutch solo competitor Remy Geerts applies surgical precision to her sculpture, "The Abundance of Harvest." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tacoma, Wash., sculptor Sue McGrew works on "Noh Trifater." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. "You just carve away everything that doesn't look like a sand castle," says Amazin' Walter McDonald of Texas, seen here working on one of the turrets of his sand castle. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sculptors use everything from archeological tools to credit cards to carve the sand into finished creations. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Quebec-based sculptor Marc Lepire works on his piece, "Krazy." It was inspired by a character in a movie he watched with his son. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Nicola Wood, left, uses a trowel to smooth the base of Team Machas' sculpture, "Dream Like You'll Live Forever. Live Like You'll Die Tomorrow." Meanwhile, teammate Arianne Van Rosmalen carves small figures and Marielle Heesels sprays them with a water-glue mixture to keep them from blowing away after the water dries. The sculpture, a tribute to a team member who passed away earlier this year, won first place in the teams division. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Dealing with the drizzle, Team USA fleshes out the details on their piece, "Open Mind." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Sudarsan Pattnaik works on President Obama's hair on his sculpture, "Let's Stand for World Peace." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. With five minutes left after four days of carving, members of Team Sand Boxers race to finish their sculpture before time runs out. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The back side of "Connected," a Seattle-themed sculpture, shows the Space Needle, Mount Rainier and rain pouring out of clouds. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dan Belcher of St. Louis runs around his solo sculpture, "Icarus II," minutes before the competition ends. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A small outhouse adorns the grounds of "Where to Go," a sand castle carved by Amazin' Walter McDonald of South Padre Island, Texas. "It's my signature," he says. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Joris Kivits from the Netherlands contributed "Puzzled" to the competition. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Brit Paul Hoggard sculpted this elephant using a technique called "soft pack," which means he didn't use any forms when packing the sand. "If you don’t know how to do the basics of soft pack, you know, you’ve not got it all. You have to be able to do the hard and the soft. And there a lot of the sculptors that only concentrate on the hard," Hoggard said. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. "Krazy" the clown was inspired by a character in a movie that Quebec's Marc Lepire watched with his son. The day before this photo was taken, the clown had hair on both sides of his head, but a bird landed on one side and collapsed that part of the sculpture. Lepire compensated by carving the skull open and exposing the clown's brains. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. "Magnetic Feels" was built by Fergus Mulvaney of Ireland. When asked about the temporary nature of sand sculptures, Mulvaney replied, "No material lasts forever. Even the amazing Roman or Mesopotamian sculptures are slowly deteriorating. And like most things in the world right now, the most exclusive things are the ones you can’t have. So this makes it even more special and more exclusive. Nobody can have it." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Uldis Zarins of Latvia sculpted a piece called "It Was Just a Bad Dream." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Damon Farmer from Kentucky conceived and built "To be Revealed." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rich Varano of Florida contributed "Fanta Sea for Sue Sea" to the competition. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Benjamin Probanza of Mexico decided to call his sculpture "Untitled." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. "Jimi" by Bill Dow of Montana was completed on Sept. 18, the 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix's death. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Karlis Lle of Latvia dreamed up a sculpture called "Thru the Wall of Love." (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The face seen in "Facing the Negative" by Wilfred Stiger of the Netherlands is actually a concave part of the sculpture, rather than convex, so it appears lit from below. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. "Whirlwind" by Thomas Koet of Florida won first place in the solo division. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Damon Langlois of Victoria, B.C., puts finishing touches on Team Sand Boxers' "Connected," a Pacific Northwest-themed sculpture. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Joo Heng Tan of Singapore sprays his untitled sculpture with a mixture of glue and water to protect it from the elements. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. "Distance Gives Perspective," which won first place in the doubles division, was sculpted by Martijn Rijerse from the Netherlands and Hanneke Supply of Belgium. (Jim Seida / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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Gallery: Your sand sculptures

From alligators invading the beach to the march of the turtles, a look at your best sand sculptures.

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