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Summer 2005 Vol. 49, Number 2

You're a what? Sand sculptor
Elka Jones
Contributing editor for the OOQ

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You're a what from past issues


 Sand sculptures

Once upon a time, there was a builder of castles. But he didnít use sticks or stones to make his castles. He built them out of sand.

It might seem like a fairytale, but sculpting sand has been Damon Farmerís job for nearly 30 years. Damon is a professional sand sculptor. His job involves turning tiny grains of sand into large-scale works of art. "Itís interesting to see that thereís a benefit to following your love and having it become something you can make money at," says Damon. "When I first started out, I didnít realize this was something other people did. I liked sculpting out of sand, and so I did it."

Although Damon currently builds fewer castles than he did when he was starting out, his work retains a fairytale feel. With a sand sculpture of Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, he won the 1996 World Championship in British Columbia, Canadaóand later recreated the sculpture for the Castelli di Mare (Castles of the Sea) competition in Jesolo, Italy. Invitational events like these are all-expenses-paid trips that give Damon the chance to travel around the world.

"Jack and the Beanstalk" sand sculpture

No matter where it is done, though, sand sculpting involves more than just having fun in the sun. Creating these sculptures, which can be as high as 20 to 30 feet, requires some special techniques and a lot of hard work.

"Itís a physically demanding job," says Damon. Many sand sculptors begin a sculpture by shoveling sand into a wooden or plastic frame thatís about 2 feet high. Then, they carry numerous 5-gallon buckets of water to mix with the sand. As soon as the sand is evenly saturated, it is pounded into the frame with a hand tamper (a tool for packing sand) or a gas-operated machine called a jumping jack.

After the initial layer of sand is compacted, a smaller frame is put on top of the first. More water is added, and again, the mixture is pounded until compact. This process is repeated until the structure reaches its desired height. "It ends up looking like a wedding cake," Damon says of the multitiered structure.

Next, the frame is removed from the top tier, and
Damonóstanding on a 6-inch-wide ledgeóbegins to sculpt, working from the top down. "Itís all deductive," he says. "Youíre taking away to reveal the form."

"Jack and the Beanstalk" sand sculpture (close up)

Damon might work from a sketch, but he doesnít do much measuring. Sculpting, he says, is an easier art form than a two-dimensional one, such as painting, which requires creating the illusion of depth. "An artistic eye helps," he says, "but to some degree, anyone with a desire to sculpt can do it."

There are no formal training requirements for becoming a sand sculptor, but Damon says that practice is one of the best ways to prepare for the occupation. While developing his abilities, Damon says, he used only a shovel and a butter knife instead of working with frames or special tools. "My first sand sculpture looked like something any kid would make on a beach," he says.

Damon has a degree in art. But, he says, "thereís hardly any kind of education that wouldnít come in handy." Sand sculptors use mathematics, for example, to convert square yards into tons when calculating the volume of sand that they need. They also use math when ordering plywood, such as 2-by-4s, to make the frames.

Computer and Internet skills also are an asset for sand sculptors. Damon created his own Web site, which he uses to inform people all over the world about sand sculpting and about his work.

Damon Farmer and sand castle

Communication skills are important, too. "Youíre dealing with people a lot," says Damon, "sending people sketches, negotiating prices, and communicating with spectators." Spectators like to interact with sculptors, which often makes the process of creating a sculpture as important as the finished product. Sand sculpting is a performance art, Damon says, so "anytime a sand sculpture is being built, people enjoy watching it."

The ability of sand sculptors to draw a crowd is one of the reasons why the work is profitable. Cities sponsor sand-sculpting events as promotional or tourist attractions, and companies sponsor them for advertising purposes. Commissioned sculptures may be built either indoors or outdoors, adding variation to the work.

It wasnít until the 1990s that Damon got his first paid job. Now, he estimates that heís one of hundreds of people who sculpt sand on a regular basis. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data on sand sculptors.

Damon accepts two types of sand-sculpting jobs: Those for which he is solely responsible and those for which heís a subcontractor to a company that hires several sand sculptors. The first type of job, says Damon, requires him to do everything, from talking with clients to ordering materials, arranging lodging, and hiring other sand sculptors, if necessary. But as a subcontractor, Damon doesnít have to worry about logistics; he just shows up and sculpts.

The extra work involved in an independent job can be worthwhile, however. Damon estimates that sand sculptors working on independent jobs earn about $500 dailyóabout twice as much as they can make subcontracting.

But sand sculptors donít work every day. In fact, Damon says that many people, including himself, do sand sculpting part time while also working in another occupation. In addition to the income he earns from sand sculpting, Damon makes money by painting and by doing computer animations.

Sand Castle

Sporadic earnings are not the only reason why few people choose sand sculpting as their primary source of income, though. The occupationís exhaustive travel requirements are another reason. "People tend to burn out if they do this full-time," says Damon. For example, Damon lives in landlocked Versailles, Kentuckyóso nearly all of his jobs are elsewhere. He says that itís draining to be away from home and to travel all the time.

To complete a project, sand sculptors might work 8 or more hours a day for up to 14 days straight. Sand sculpting is done just about anywhere that can accommodate a delivery of sand. The ample supply of sand at beaches makes them an obvious location choice for many projects and competitions.

Beaches also have an ample supply of water, a key ingredient in creating any sand sculpture. Grains of sand in a sculpture are held together by the surface tension of water droplets. Compacting the wet sand makes the bond between the water droplets stronger, helping the final sculpture to last longerósometimes for a month or more.

While they are working, whether inside or out, at a paid display or in a competition, sand sculptors and their creations draw a lot of public admiration. "Itís satisfying, as an artist, to have your work appreciated," says Damon.

This gratification also helps Damon not to be bothered by the fact that each of his creations is short lived. "Itís like a song," he says. "Itís there for people to enjoy, and then itís over."

Photos courtesy of Damon Farmer.

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Last Updated: November 18, 2005