The art of sand sculpting

A sand sculpture (top) by artist Sue McGrew (above).
A sand sculpture (above) by artist Sue McGrew.PHOTO: SUE MCGREW, WWW.SUEMCGREW.COM
A sand sculpture (top) by artist Sue McGrew (above).
A sand sculpture by artist Sue McGrew (above).PHOTO: SUE MCGREW, WWW. SUEMCGREW.COM

Tiny, but sharp sand particles with enough silt and clay are good for creating sculptures, says artist Sue McGrew

DALLAS • Life is a beach for some lucky folks such as Sue McGrew.

She creates amazing pieces of art, but they often last just a few weeks.

Sometimes, they disappear in a day. A soaking rain, for example, can wash away several hours of work in minutes.

But that is the life of a professional sand sculptor, including getting sand in the eyes, who designs amazing shapes out of a medium everyone is familiar with.

McGrew has practised this art form - using sand, water and a few hand tools - since high school. Now, the American travels the world for competitions and other events.

Though the 31-year-old from Seattle also carves head-turning designs out of ice and snow, she says: "I love to express myself in sand. The magic is in the medium. It's something every kid and adult has played in at the beach.

"People don't relate in the same way to a bronze or marble sculpture."

But while the latter has permanence, a sand sculpture does not sit on firm ground.

So what people really want to know from McGrew is: "Aren't you sad when it all goes away?"

Yes and no, she says. "It's part of the job," she says, knowing her sculptures are not designed to last long.

But, for her, the joy is that "people experience it with you" in the moments while she is crafting her works.

Fortunately, there are photos. Images of giant castles, fetching mermaids, storybook characters and mythological creatures abound on her website at suemcgrew.com.

Some took shape in a day; others took a few weeks.

Does she have a favourite?

She pauses, then mentions the giant head of French adventure writer Jules Verne that she sculpted in Taiwan.

"There's a level of difficulty to do a portrait, at that scale, with beach sand, which is not that strong.

"And when it's that large, you're so close that it doesn't look like anything until you climb down and see it from below."

Collapses are part of the job. "You want to awe people so you push the limits of gravity and sand sculpting," she says.

The quality of the sand is vital to how strong a sculpture can withstand the test of time and the elements.

"You want tiny, but sharp particles with enough silt and clay so the sculpture actually gets harder" with time.

Quarry sand is good, but beach sand is tricky. A bucketful of coarse sand has lots of air, like a bag of marbles. So the tip is to look for fine sand that packs well.

If you think sand sculptors always work on sun-drenched tropical beaches with palm trees swaying overhead, think again.

At a 2013 springtime event in Binz, Germany, a resort on the Baltic Sea, "it was so cold the sand froze", McGrew says. "We had to use blowtorches to thaw it."

Final words of advice: Sand sculpting is hard work, she says. Cracks and cave-ins happen.

And "you never know when your baby brother will go Godzilla on your castle" and reduce it to smithereens.

So relax. Be patient. And, most of all, have fun this weekend on the beach.

WASHINGTON POST

• The Sentosa International Sand Sculpting Championship will be held at Siloso Beach from Monday to Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'The art of sand sculpting'. Print Edition | Subscribe