With flowing seaweed hair and Ray-Ban sunglasses, a six-foot mermaid with a shell bikini and colorful tail greets passers-by on Fort Lauderdale Beach with a welcoming smile. But alas, the siren-beauty is only made of sand. The artist behind this and dozens of other elaborate sculptures, Rich Dutko, says his popular project began as a fluke.
“I made a nice mermaid and came in like
Dutko quickly found his talents in demand. “People would come up to me and ask if I would do a turtle or a dolphin or a cat,” he says of the children and adults that would crowd around to see what he might make next.
Owner of a window-washing company by trade, Dutko, 66, lives in Pittsburg. He and his wife Patti vacation to Fort Lauderdale for a month each February, where Dutko creates masterpieces behind their condo on Galt Ocean Mile.
“Whatever I find on the beach that catches my eyes, I use it,” he says. “I pick up garbage on the beach, too. That’s how I got started. I help clean the beach up.”
The sculptures are made exclusively from items found in the immediate vicinity, with the exception of the colored sand. Dutko mixes the dye himself with water and food coloring and sprays it on the packed sand. Each sculpture takes up to four hours to build, and he changes them every three days. He has to get up early each morning to make sure the city seaweed cleaning machine does not destroy his creations.
“They can rake it over
One of the most impactful sculptures that Dutko built was a tribute to the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last February.
This year, on the first anniversary of the shooting, he made another tribute by the large, wooden cross that made national news after it washed up on the beach behind the Ocean Manor Hotel on Galt Ocean Mile.
“People were coming up to me and some were shaking my hand, some were hugging me, some were crying, thanking me,” he says of the sculpture he crafted with the words “17 Angels” spelled out across the sand. The sculpture deeply affected a community that was devastated by the tragic loss of life.
“I’d go out the next day and there would always be something different out there,” Dutko says. “Flowers, rosary beads – it was just impressive.”
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Dutko doesn’t always know what he will build next and often waits for inspiration to strike instinctively. He will build his next creation between 8 and 11 a.m. on Saturday, February 23, behind the building located at 3750 Galt Ocean Mile.
Parking at that building is not permitted, but interested viewers can find Dutko by entering the beach at Oakland Park Boulevard and then walking north, or at Bamboo Beach Tiki Bar & Grill at Ocean Manor Hotel and then walking south.
Dutko welcomes the public, who can watch his process and get tips on how to make their own works of sand art.
“When I leave here, I wipe it clean, smooth everything out, and throw whatever is garbage away,” he says of his last sculpture of the year that will be built at the end of February. “The shells and all that, I give back to the ocean.”