Sand sculpting exhibitions and events have been popular in the United States since the late 1800’s . Historical accounts, postcards and rare photos confirm that sand sculptures have been attracting huge crowds to business districts for well over a hundred years. Early artists, some commissioned by business owners, some working strictly for tips, created huge relief sculptures along the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ. These sculptures attracted tourists and local residents, who marveled at these intricate creations. Unfortunately, after several decades of these successful exhibitions, a handful of con artists took advantage of the huge crowds these sculptures generated and caused a pick pocket panic frenzy that lead to the outlawing of sand sculpting exhibitions on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 1944. This law is actually still on the books to this day.
Following WWII families returned to the beaches in huge numbers. Americans were again embracing beach side communities as vacation hot spots. Soon family sand sculpture contests sprung up all over the east coast. In the early 70’s, incredible masterpieces were documented reappearing in California. Gerry Kirk and Todd VanderPluym, collectively known as Sand Sculptors International (SSI) created fanciful architectural wonders that reignited America’s interest in sand sculpture exhibitions. Another artist, the late Mark Altamare was leaving his mark ( no pun intended) on the east coast. Starting in Ocean City , MD during the summer of 1968 Mark honed his natural gift of soft sand carving. By simply manipulating the freshly piled sand with only his, hands he would craft wonderous classical and religious scenes. These three artists, while on different paths, all represented a new generation of full-time professional sand sculptors.
A Championship event is born
In 1986 one of the first organized sand castle competitions took place in the small town of Whiterock, BC. The event was successful in attracting over 100,000 spectators. Unfortunately the small town was unable to handle such large crowds. Wide spread vandalism forced the community council to ban future sand sculpting events at this small town. At that time it must have seemed like sand sculpting events would never get off the ground. Fortunately for these artists, not far away in a town known as Harrison’s Hot Springs, BC, a local Lions group, headed by John Green thought there would be potential for a sandcastle event in Harrison Hot Springs. He persuaded the Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce members to make an investment in a handful of professional sculptors from Whiterock to build an exhibition sculpture on the beach at Harrison’s Hot Springs. This first event in the spring of 1987 was a local success so they decided to hold a contest in the Fall of 1987 that attracted teams from Seattle and Vancouver to compete for a $2000 first prize. Compared to current day sand sculpting contests that range from 21 – 27 hours, this team contest was only 4 hours long. The event continued to grow throughout the late 80’s into the 90’s with several landmark achievements such as setting two world records for the tallest sand sculpture and more importantly creating a place for sand sculptors to network and set goals for the future of sand sculpting as a competitive spectators event.
More sculpting events
The 1980’s also saw the creation of several other sand sculpting contests around the United States. Many of these events were started by city council groups, chambers and community groups hoping to boost their tourism industry. Sculptor from around the country flocked to these contests attempting to make a name for them selves in the sand sculpting community. Events like Sand Castle Days on South Padre Island, TX, the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach, VA and the American Sand Sculpting Championship in Fort Myers, FL continue to contribute millions of dollars in stimulus to the local economies they support.
Successes and failures
While these events experienced relative success, they were not without problems of their own. Many events suffered from shifting control over the years of mostly volunteer groups which failed to provide a stable platform for a unified contest series. Even with the birth of the internet and the ability to share experiences between events, most communities chose to keep a closed-door policy on the sharing of information. Sculptors also struggled to take advantage of the success of these events, partly due to the lack of a unified voice among sculptors but mostly because there were few events that were organised by sculptors. The simple fact was the artists were outnumbered by the organizers. Any artist who complained about less than stellar prize money or poor judging practices was most likely to be shut out of the contest the following year.
The pursuit of structure
Fortunately, a hand full of sculptors had taken advantage of their exposure and were able to create independent sculpting companies of their own. This had allowed them to make a full-time living creating sculptures for corporate and private clients as well as help create new sand sculpting events of their own. This shift in control over events has been a slow one but constantly progressing forward. Event organisers have started to rely more heavily on the participation of sculptors in the oversight of their events as well.
Change is in the air
The most significant change in professional sand sculpting came in 2009. It became apparent after 22 years, what had come to be known as the World Championship of Sand Sculpting in Harrison’s Hot Springs was not going to take place. A shift in political and developmental policy at Harrison’s had forever closed the doors on the historic event. Even though the global sand sculpting community had never fully come to recognise the event as the one true World Championship, its loss was no less painful for all the artists that had attended it over the years. A small group of passionate artists that included Suzanne Altamare, widow to the late Mark Altamare under took the daunting task of finding a new home for the World Championships. Suzanne, a talented sand sculptor herself, was experienced and well-respected by both sand sculptors and event organisers. Her passion for the advancement of professional sand sculpting events as well as the advancement of the artists themselves is unlike anything this writer has ever known. It would not be long before a new location was found.
A sence of unity
In the fall of 2010 in a small town outside of Seattle , WA known as Federal Way, a new World Championship of Sand Sculpting was held. While the event was far from perfect, it had successfully achieved what no single event in sand sculpting history had done before. This event now had qualifying events in seven different countries! For the first time events around the globe opened up their doors and cooperated. A major advantage in this new open door policy was the ability to share travel costs of artists which in some cases had been up to the artist to cover. Much work is still needed to continually improve the system of professional sand sculpting. For now it seems that a hand full of artists have taken the lead. From what I have seen, there is nothing that can stop them. For now this story is…. TO BE CONTINUED!