Sand Blast

A sand sculptor has to be able to take a joke. After hours in the sun building 3-D art from a flat stretch of sand, there are occasionally wisecrackers with whom to contend.

"What time do we jump on it?" asks a jovial guy at a trade association party at the Boca Beach Club. He's talking to John May, the Fort Lauderdale artist who just finished carving the group's logo into a triangle of sand. May, who continues to touch up the sculpture by the light of tiki torches on the beach, smiles at the remark and replies, "As soon as I leave."

Sand sculpting is both a visual and a performance art. Bystanders who've attempted their own sand-bucket castles on the beach are in awe of what professionals carve in sand. The creation of intricate scenes -- especially those that involve four or five sculptors working for several days -- draws a crowd of gawkers. Good thing it's free to watch the pieces in progress at the beach, because having one built can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on a piece's size and complexity.

Among the larger pieces May has helped build as a member of Team Sandtastic is an 18-foot-tall castle accompanied by a two-headed dragon. The piece was built for a festival in South Carolina. A carousel the company created at a park in Georgia set a Guinness world record: 28 feet, 7 1/4 inches tall.

May, age 36, started sculpting several years ago and won a few local beach contests. Sand-sculpting became a second career (he also owns a sign company in Fort Lauderdale) after he ran into Mark Mason, an old buddy who was building sculptures for the 1995 Super Bowl in Miami.

Mason, who grew up in South Florida, hired May for his Sarasota-based Team Sandtastic, which crafts sand sculptures around the country. May has built a tabletop castle for a beach-theme bar mitzvah party, and last week he sculpted a three-foot-tall Mickey Mouse for Disney executives at a poolside event in South Beach.

At an international competition near St. Petersburg this month, he used seven tons of sand to sculpt Homer Simpson wearing an inner tube and surrounded by sharks. The kicker to the piece was a dock bearing a "No Swimming" sign. Doh!

May's humorous hunk of sand didn't win, but Mason, who was defending his first-place title from last year's event, took second place for Plumb and True, his sculpture of carpenters building cabinets.

In comparison the piece at the Boca Beach Club party today is relatively simple: letters carved into a triangle. Even so, May began working hours before guests were due to arrive. On the beach just a few steps from the patio deck, he hosed sand until it was the consistency of mud, packed it into a triangular pile, then smoothed the surface, into which he carved the insignia.

While scooping and carving crisp initials with a kitchen spatula, he positioned himself carefully to avoid leaning on the structure. To get an even cleaner look, he stuck a skinny tube in his mouth and gently blew away excess grains from the letters.

Before snapping a photograph and heading home, May swirls the sand around the base of the sculpture with a plastic toy rake to highlight the contrasting textures of beach and sculpture. Sculptors don't always work with beach sand. Too much shell or ground-up coral content ruins tiny details like facial expressions, so artists often truck in tons of finer sand that packs more tightly.

"If I was carving a shirt,... with good sand we could put in buttons and stitching -- just more detail," May notes.

Sand is sand, though, and anything built from the grains can crumble. At a seafood festival in Jensen Beach, May and another sculptor spent two days building an eight-foot-tall historic hotel reproduced from a postcard. But "it just cracked and fell apart," says May.

Someone suggested that vibrations from nearby trains had caused the collapse. Whatever the culprit was, the sculptors started over. "We were a little punchy from lack of sleep," May says. "We just had fun -- and worked all night."

-- Patti Roth

Information on sand-sculpting and images of Team Sandtastic's creations can be found on its Website: For more information call 941-359-0868.

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Patti Roth