At Shore, a sand master sculpts in the spotlight

Sand sculptor Matt Long and the tools of his trade. "I'm still amazed at what we can do" with sand, he said during a day practicing on the beach in Wildwood Crest.
Sand sculptor Matt Long and the tools of his trade. "I'm still amazed at what we can do" with sand, he said during a day practicing on the beach in Wildwood Crest. (DAWN FALLIK)
Posted: August 19, 2012

WILDWOOD CREST - It's full-on summertime hot as Matt Long sets up his yellow buckets, pastry knives, and brushes at the far end of the beach and gets to work.

What is it? Right now, it's a blob of sand. A four-foot-high wedding cake of brown.

Slowly, carefully, the shape of a hydrant emerges. Six hours later, countless grains of hard, broken rock have become a carved hand reaching from the Earth, turning a spigot on one side of the hydrant while "water" returns to the ground on the other.

"I had a deep, hidden-meaning explanation for this sculpture," says Long, 57, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y.

"Something about the hand representing man's struggle to put an end to all the mess, the stress, and the confusion represented by the steady flow from the spigot. All the while the flow from the spigot keeps man buried in subterranean slurry. The Spigot of Man's Confusion!"

That's some deep thinking out on the Jersey Shore.

Long owns a wood-restoration business in New York City. But for three years, he's worked almost exclusively as a sand sculptor for hire. He's finished 30 to 40 sculptures this year, his busiest ever, he says.

He's flown to Anguilla to create a work for a wealthy couple's wedding, carved dolphins in the Bahamas, and built a Manhattan skyline in a Bergen County, N.J., mall.

But when he's on his own time, Long says, he goes to Wildwood Crest for its spectacularly sculptable sand.

"Fine-grain sand is excellent, but it's not perfect, because you want an angular structure to the grains so they lock up together when you add water," Long says.

A dash of silt or clay is also useful in holding things together, he adds, clenching a handful of the premium Cape May County stock. When he releases his fingers, there's a beautiful, fist-shaped ball.

As one of seven "sand masters" on the Travel Channel series of the same name, Long is sometimes followed by cameras. (He's waiting to see whether Season 3 is picked up.)

But on this sweltering August day, he's just hanging out with friends, playing around with ideas inspired by everything from fire hydrants to background art on the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

Most of the time, Long is hired to create something specific - a lion lounging on rocks for the Staten Island Zoo, for example, or a tribute to New York firefighter Stephen Siller, whose death on 9/11 led to creation of a charity for the children of fallen first responders.

In October, he'll be sand-carving at a pumpkin-chucking contest - the Last Fling Pumpkin Sling - in Harmony Township, N.J.

He doesn't come cheap: If you want to set the stage for a wedding proposal on Staten Island, he can do a romantic castle for about $500. For more elaborate projects that involve travel, he's been paid as much as $40,000.

His work is designed to disappear, whether in slow licks from the water or within seconds under teenage feet.

"I spent about five hours yesterday working on this abstract sculpture, and there were a lot of older kids around. As we were packing up, I heard a lot of whispering like, 'Oh yeah, he's going!' and I knew it wasn't long for the world," Long says.

"If it's a big event, or a competition, they usually hire guards overnight to keep the pieces safe."

Long began sand-sculpting when he was a child during family trips to the Shore. His first real gig came in 2003, when someone who knew someone mentioned his skills to an event planner for Nike. They paid him $1,000 for two days' work building a giant shoe crushing a sand castle.

"The craziest thing I ever did was a job at the W Hotel [in Manhattan], doing a sculpture for a book called 101 Alternative Uses for K-Y Jelly," Long said. "I had to use a lot of K-Y in the sculpture itself, but it wasn't dirty, it was pretty clean."

Wherever he works, crowds form. They want to know what he's making, how he started, what advice he has.

It's all about the foundation, Long tells them. Pack the sand really tight at the bottom, have a design already in mind, and use a lot of patience and decent tools.

Long has developed his own kit (available online at sandtools.com) that includes molds and shapers and brushes. But one of his best secrets is a straw, used to blow away unwanted bits. Just don't inhale.

Even surrounded by people, sculpting is a solitary pursuit, the sound of the sea somehow working with the scrape, scrape of the knife. When he works, Long says, his mind is clear, peaceful.

"I'm still amazed at what we can do. Sand shouldn't be vertical," he says as the fingers of a left hand slowly emerge next to the sculpted hydrant. "It shouldn't stand still. And then it does."


Sand master Matt Long explains what makes Wildwood Crest special. www.philly.com/sandcastle

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