by columnist Madeline Karp
I’ve been known to complain that Atlantic City is a culture vacuum. People don’t come to Atlantic City to take in Shakespeare, look at fine art or go to wine tastings. They come to go to get tanned, ogle half-naked girls at the beach, and get trashed on over-priced drinks at the beach bars. If you want refinement, the locals say here, go to Philadelphia. This is the Shore, baby.
So you can imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I stumbled across the 2013 World Championship Sand Sculpting Competition hosted right on the beach in Atlantic City. Twenty champions from around the world qualified to compete as solo artists and in pairs.
OK, yes. It’s glorified sand castle building. But it’s also amazing.
People who admitted they would never have set foot in a sculpture garden or museum, were wandering around these sculptures admiring the technique, discussing the meaning of the works, and voting for their favorite pieces by dropping quarters into milk jugs. It was public art and co-curation at its absolute best.
I think we’re all on the same page when it comes to needing creative ways to involve the public in our collections management and exhibition processes. I took lots of pictures, so rather than talk about things you already know, I’d rather just show you what the competition looked like, and give you the basic FAQs.
Twenty sculptors competed this year from all over the world. Countries represented included the United States, Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Singapore, Latvia and Russia.
The sand was special beach sand from many years ago, unearthed in a sand quarry and trucked in to the beach. Regular beach sand was deemed “unsuitable” for proper sculpture construction.
Sculptors are not allowed to use molds or power tools. All construction must either be done by hand or with hand tools – they can’t use any extra sand or binding agents and must keep their sculptures within a specific, pre-marked area.
Some sculptors plan their works out. Others make it up as they go along. I asked one of the sculptors if she built her sand up and shaped as she went, or if like Michelangelo she packed the sand into a big block and then carved out her piece. She smiled shyly and simply said, “We all do little of both.”
All sculptors spray their sculpture down with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and water. The glued sand can withstand some rain and can sometimes harden into a cement-like substance after a small shower.
Awards were given by a juried panel of sculptors, by visitors who voted for their favorites with their pocket change, and by the competing sculptors themselves.
The sculptors take breaks throughout the day to give visiting kids sand castle building lessons and to talk a little bit about their pieces and process.
Some of sand sculptors were retired, but most have day jobs. Some are industrial designers, some are photographers, and one was even a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History!
PS – It poured on Sunday night, a few hours after the competition’s conclusion. If that wasn’t incentive to see the sculptures ASAP, I can’t imagine what would be. There’s a lot to be said about this kind of art – it’s gorgeous, but you definitely have to take a Zen perspective and accept that this particular beauty is very, very fleeting.
To see the official contest rules, pictures of past years’ winners and the schedule of events, check out the World Championship of Sand Sculpting’s website.
To read more about the winners and the history of sand sculpting, check out this article featured in the Press of Atlantic City.