Secrets Of The Sandman

Professional sand sculptor Chuck Feld demonstrates his art before a beach audience during the annual Skimmer Festival in Sea Isle City Saturday.
Professional sand sculptor Chuck Feld demonstrates his art before a beach audience during the annual Skimmer Festival in Sea Isle City Saturday. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Just add water - and skill, creativity, time, and tools.

Posted: June 16, 2014

Matthew Deibert gently tended to the 10-foot tower of sand at Long Beach Island's Fantasy Island Amusement Park.

On a recent overcast afternoon, the 49-year-old Smithville resident began to carve what would likely take him several visits between his 10-hour days as an Atlantic City fire captain.

Deibert's sand creations have been among the centerpieces greeting visitors - attractions whose twists and dips will never be the same season to season. This year, he planned to depict amusement-park icons and give its mascot, "Mayor Al Gator," an ice cream cone. He would include thirty 30s to honor the three-decade anniversary of the park.

"It's in there," Deibert said of his future sculpture. "I just have to get it out."

Deibert is among a handful of sand sculptors in the region who have gained small degrees of fame and fortune by manipulating one of Earth's natural resources. They have traveled the world, carved sand on boardwalks and in casinos, performed in front of crowds and TV cameras.

Building larger-than-life figures with a hodgepodge of carving tools, including cake-decorating tips, sand artists continue to show that hanging out in sandboxes isn't just for kids.

An international competition in Atlantic City this month turns a light on the art, one that most agree possesses a certain novelty. Twenty participants from nine countries will compete beginning Thursday for the DO A.C. Sand Sculpting World Cup, which includes solo and doubles rounds. The spectacle ends July 6.

"It's not just a castle on the beach," said John Gowdy, the event's organizer and a renowned sand sculptor. "We have taken it to completely other levels."

About 130,000 people came to see last year's three-week sand event. The cup this year will be named after Philip McCord, who is believed to be the first sand sculptor to be paid, in Atlantic City in the 1890s.

In the 1940s, the city banned sculpting sand along the beaches, so Mayor Don Guardian will give written permission - in a sand scroll - for the event, which offers $75,000 in prizes ($4,000 for the solo first-place winner and $7,000 to the first-place doubles winners).

'Small community'

The sand men of the tristate area, you might call them, all know one another. Most have assisted each other, or faced off.

Deibert's mentor was Gowdy. It was at the firehouse in 1999 that Deibert took an interest in Gowdy's photos of intriguing sand creations. Gowdy, 57, a now-retired city fire captain, agreed to introduce his colleague to the basics.

"I couldn't believe the world of sand that was out there," said Deibert, who has a degree in graphic design and previously worked in advertising.

Regionally, established women in the medium are hard to come by. Two of the 20 contestants competing in Atlantic City are women, from Canada and Italy.

Melineige Beauregard, 32, of Montreal, said women may be dissuaded by the physical demands. But, she said, her fellow female sculptors proved they can do it: "Women bring something different to the competition."

There is no umbrella organization that oversees sculpting competitions, so gauging the breadth of the art form worldwide is difficult. Gowdy surmised that there are about 150 sculptors internationally who would qualify as masters.

"It's a small community," said Matt Long, 59, a wood restorer who started working with sand in the late '90s to fill restless hours on a Cape May beach during vacations.

Years later, Long, of New York, created a line of tools, Can You Dig It Sand Tools, used by some of his contemporaries.

The tools

To make a good sculpture, said Chuck Feld, 65, of Birmingham Township, Chester County, one must learn the fundamental balance between sand, the best of which is seldom found on the beach, and water, of which there's never too much.

Many competitions and individual gigs start by trucking in sand from quarries. Artists agree that fine, flat-edged sand with clay and silt makes for good sculptures.

To build large creations - sometimes as high as 20 feet - artists shovel and pack tons of sand into wood boxes to create bases. Their tools of choice are borrowed from other fields - margin trowels used by bricklayers, painter's palette knives, even spoons.

Deibert wears a long straw around his neck to blow away the imperfections. He also dilutes glue with water in a spray bottle to help the sand keep.

Done right, sand shapers say, a castle can last a year or longer before being lost to gravity or a belligerent passerby. Cold weather poses the biggest threat.

Although prices vary by project, a 10-ton creation could cost about $1,500, Deibert said. But labor costs vary as requests do - from a table-top castle for weddings to a ginormous likeness of Godzilla to a stately depiction of Pope John Paul II.

Feld, formerly in landscaping and a horticulture instructor, said he was making about $40,000 annually in sand jobs several years ago. But he said economic conditions didn't spare the work and, crediting in part his own lack of marketing, says he now brings in half of that.

Hand it down

While there are no easily found courses in sand sculpting, there is Andy Gertler. Based in Sea Cliff, N.Y., Gertler's Sand Castle University uses a 20-ton sandbox to train beginners and budding professionals.

"We've had people from the toy industry come in, and they take to it immediately," said Gertler, 55.

Other artists also offer lessons and take part in various programs to train kids. Every year, Feld does a demonstration in Sea Isle City and hopes young artists will take an interest in the art.

Deibert has so far recruited one of his six children, Ian, 21. "It's kind of nice to hand something down," he said.

The father and son won $10,000 in the Travel Channel's Sand Wars competition, in which sculptors squared off in Siesta Key, Fla. (Gowdy and his wife, Laura Cimador-Gowdy, also won a cash prize in the competition.) That show and the channel's Sand Blasters and Sand Masters programs have given their work far-reaching attention.

'Still there'

Sand artists are often reluctant to name their best creation. Their work lives on in photos and memories long after it is washed away or hauled away.

But the sculptors love to talk about their experiences across the world - Gertler in Thailand, Gowdy in Italy, Long in Times Square, Feld in Belgium.

Deibert's most fascinating carve took place in Normandy. In 2004, he and Gowdy were invited by the White House Commission on Remembrance to carve for the 60th anniversary of D-Day with the help of several others. The 30-foot memorial on Omaha Beach depicted troops who were there on that historic day.

"We carved the sand that these guys walked," Deibert said, recalling veterans visiting to see. "It was emotional."

Feld, a 30-year sculptor, is still amused when spectators ask what his favorite creation is.

His pocketed reply: "The one I'm working on right now.

"Because," he said, "it's still there."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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