Three South Padre Island artists work on the beach, but don't call them bums.
IT IS JUST A HAIRLINE crack for now, but Fred Mallett knows it means trouble. What looks like a flaw along the surface is actually a fissure—who knows how deep—running down into his statue’s left arm. The only thing to do is to go work on some other piece of the sculpture.
For the past two days, Fred has been working on the beach, cordoned off inside a twenty-foot square with his tools, some buckets of water, and about four tons of sand. It is a hazy, humid afternoon in Port Aransas, with freighters barely visible as they chug out into the Gulf through distant fog. Spectators in swimsuits and T-shirts, myself included, stroll the crowded shore, walking the beach for a look at the Texas Sandfest sculpting competition. Fred is one of the event’s sixteen master sand sculptors, each with identical plots lined up about one hundred feet from the water. Next to Fred, an artist from suburban Seattle has fashioned a grinning Buddha with a surfboard and an umbrella drink. The sculptors share a distinctive tan, more like a sunburn left out to brown over time, and even though Fred is still a “newbie”—he started sculpting just a year and a half ago—he’s no exception. He is 44 years old, his long wave of brown hair splashed with a little gray in the back. He works the sand with a cool focus, answers questions from onlookers with a MacGuyver-like friendly expertise.
The novelty of the sculptures I saw in photos is what drew me to Port Aransas, and I am clearly not alone in my fascination. As I wait in parking lot traffic and food lines, I join a dog-walking, sandal-clad gaggle that lends this wide-open beach all the tranquility of a North African bazaar. The Port A event is one of three large annual sand contests along Texas’ Gulf Coast.
We, the crowd of around 80,000, came to treat ourselves to a day at the beach, to have a look at the amazing things other people can do with sand. We mill around, careful not to spill our beers, wondering how these artists discovered they could do that with sand, when of course, the simple answer is: They tried.
At best, we make up only half of the picture as we circle the sand plots. We snap photos and marvel that sand, which we had known for so long only as something soft to walk on, something flat, could rise fifteen feet in a free-standing tower.
Fred, across the orange ribbon that keeps back the crowd, is sweating into his hat and building that tower.
Fred’s sculpture has by now taken its shape as a hefty, stern-faced woman. With a surrealist flair, Fred has given her a huge left hand, four feet tall as it rests on the ground in front of her. She points a scolding finger down at what will, in time, become a sullen-looking puppy. He’s called the sculpture Bad Dog. The crowd grows as more notice the portentous dark line that cuts across the sand woman’s arm. The onlookers wait patiently for the inevitable disaster, their eyes fixed on the fault line where it will start. There is whispering and pointing, but Fred remains calm inside his plot of sand. He is carving out details in the low-slung neck of his dog when, behind him, the sand gives way, and with a quick puff, a chunk of the arm is gone. A chorus of groans fill the air. Fred stops his carving and nods a few times. He looks up at the spectators, reading their faces. “Well, there it went,” he says. “Anybody got a beer?”
Held together with nothing but water, sand sculptures are created not for posterity, but for the sake of creation. Sand lets an artist act quickly on inspiration without plotting out each cut beforehand, as in stone or woodwork. And the ever-present threat of total collapse keeps a sand artist focused on the process and not the product. With the logistical problems you’d find in maintaining a two-ton upright litter box in the drawing room, nobody tries to keep these sculptures for too long. They are spared the long and dusty shelf life that awaits most works of art.
The heart of sand sculpture is the sculpting process, the way bridges, tunnels, and faces slowly materialize out of a big brown lump. Sculptors need to read the sand, make concessions to gravity when the sand starts cracking, and diligently begin the whole thing over again when it falls apart. Even a finished sculpture is no lasting victory, for as soon as he’s finished, the artist surrenders his creation to nature, which dismantles the piece at its leisure.
Fred is back to work, mixing sand and water in a small bucket, pressing it into place against the broken wrist. Within half an hour, the arm is back, and the empty beer can in the sand is the only reminder of the collapse. The arm will crack again and a finger will fall off the next morning, and again Fred will replace it, fast enough to finish his piece and pack up his gear an hour before the contest ends. Of course, the arm will come apart a third time. Over the next week, once the judges have doled out their prizes elsewhere down the line, once the crowds have left the island in their pickups and RVs, the entire sand woman will fall. There will be no attempts to preserve her or the other artwork, least of all from the artists, who will be miles away and engrossed in their latest projects.
A sand sculptor enjoys a kind of freedom from his past, saddled only with snapshots of his work and memories of the time he spent carving. He can’t leave behind a gallery of old work, so he must always be creating something new. Sand sculpting is a good fit, then, for South Padre, where the days aren’t about making a dent in the world, but testing the waters for a life worth living.
They call themselves the Sons of the Beach. On the island, they’ve taken nicknames like Amazin’, Dunehead, Sandy Feet, and Cannon Boy. In another life they were schoolteachers, press photographers, and sailors in the Navy. Today, they are beach entrepreneurs. They take all-expenses-paid trips to contests and sculpture gardens in places like South Africa, Italy, and Japan. They write books and sell tools over the Internet. They give private lessons. They work long hours, but here is the payoff: They get to do it on their own schedule, in the sun, with their shoes off.
The details vary, but the story of how they arrived always goes something like this: An old friend—or their grandparents, or a girlfriend—lived on South Padre and invited them to visit. The time felt right for a little vacation, to clear the cobwebs from their souls. From all sides of the country, they traversed South Texas, hung a left with Mexico on the horizon, and crossed the causeway over from Port Isabel. The first morning on South Padre, they woke up to the calming sound of the tumbling surf, the sun bright and the fine sand soft between their toes. They felt an easy connection with the people around who had chosen the island as their home. When it was time to head back—and distant thoughts of Monday mornings and a boss breathing down their neck crept in—they realized that what they really wanted was to stay. Why go back when this feels so much like home?
After growing up in western Massachusetts, Fred crisscrossed the globe with the Navy for six years. He spent spare hours in the sun on islands in the Indian Ocean and on fishing boat docks in Greece. With the technical skills he picked up from his Navy training, Fred launched his own computer education service when he returned, a successful business that still occupies him today. Without an office to tie him down, he decided to make a new home for himself. “It dawned on me it didn’t matter where I lived any more,” Fred recalls, “So I got in a car and drove south.”
Fred became interested in sand sculpting about a year and a half ago, when his girlfriend, Sandy Feet (her real name is Lucinda Wierenga), invited him over to help with a project in her backyard sandbox. The co-owner of Sons of the Beach, a sand sculpting business based in South Padre Island, Sandy often had new boyfriends assist her.
Sandy had been a high school English teacher in Weslaco before quickly becoming fed up with her job, tired of the criticism from administrators. She moved sixty miles east to South Padre Island and used her retirement money to buy an early model Macintosh, hiring herself out for desktop publishing jobs. She also freelanced for local papers under a pseudonym, Sandy Feet, a name that has had a way of sticking over the years.
Walking between the trailers of the artists and surfers who became her neighbors, Sandy Feet could watch dolphins playing in the surf and fishermen out along the jetties. She met Walter, who lived in a nearby trailer and was a mainstay on the beach with his guitar, or his harmonica, or his sketchbook. “Amazin'” Walter McDonald grew up in Orange, near Beaumont, and first formed sand at Boy Scout camp. He started out with a little trick he picked up, creating trees by cupping soupy wet sand in his hands and letting it dribble out between his fingers.
After studying photography in college for a couple of years, Walter got restless and took off, landing a job shooting underwater photos for offshore oil rigs in the Gulf and then another taking photographs for a newspaper in Albuquerque. He was working for a paper in Dallas when the itchy feet set in one more time. “I just said phooey on it all, grabbed my guitar and got in my Volkswagen,” Walter tells me. “It’s been kind of a gypsy existence since then.” It was sometime in 1982 or 1983 when Walter rode down to South Padre with a friend: “I told ’em, ‘Ah, I’ll catch a ride back later.’ And that was twenty years ago.”
He continued to take photos and carried sketchbooks around, filling the pages with song lyrics and grocery lists. He showed off the sand-dribbling trick to some friends on the beach one day, and then he began experimenting with castles, testing out the sand to see how well it would hold together. Turns out, with its fine grain and a high silt content to make it stick, South Padre Island sand is some of the best in the world.
“He was using it as a way to pick up chicks,” Sandy Feet tells me as we sit in the masters’ tent on the Port Aransas beach at the end of the second day of the contest. “And it worked.” A few sculptors dig into the beer cooler and pizza boxes behind me. Outside, the overcast skies have cleared in time to light the nearly finished sculptures in the oranges and purples of sunset. Walter unfastens a broad, snaggletoothed grin. Sitting in a nearby folding chair, he sports a close-cropped white beard and the trademark tan of a beach artist. At 62 years old, his easygoing charm has clearly benefited from his time in the sand. “It’s worked for me,” he says.
He’d been honing his sand castle skills when he asked Sandy Feet to help him out on the beach one day. She couldn’t refuse. “Walter is such a catalyst for people,” she says. “He makes it look like so much fun that you have to just jump in and be a part of it.” In 1985 Walter built his first commercial sand sculpture for a convention in Corpus Christi, which got him thinking there might be a future in sand. He learned there were sand sculpting contests around the world, even ones that would pay artists to come and build on a distant beach.
He and Sandy Feet entered a contest sponsored by a local radio station, which they didn’t win, but they went to the North American Championship in Virginia Beach later that year and won second place. They won the radio station’s contest the following year, then started winning all the contests around Texas they could find. “Once the dam broke, it started flooding,” Sandy explains. They continued to enter competitions, and Sandy Feet wrote a book of sand sculpting tips. With their growing stock around the sand circuit, they were featured alongside other sand sculptors in a book by Chicago sculptor Ted Siebert. In 1987 Sandy Feet, Amazin’ Walter, and the South Padre Island Merchants Association hosted the first Sand Castle Days competition on South Padre, which brings master sculptors to the island every year on the third weekend in October. With their new exposure, on top of the prize money from contests, came job offers from theme parks, festivals, and casinos, and suddenly they were professional artists. Walter, Sandy Feet, and others decided to name their business the Sons of the Beach, after the title of one of Walter’s songs. Sandy, who had been keeping busy with her computer business, began designing corporate Web sites as well, and the Sons of the Beach first appeared on the Internet in 1995.
But when such relationships run out of steam, as happened with Sandy Feet and Walter, the love for sand sculpting remains. “Every one of my boyfriends since I divorced Walter,” Sandy tells me, “I got them into sand sculpting and they’ve stuck with it.” According to Sandy, some people are predisposed for it. “You’ll see a certain kind of person who sits down and before you know it, that person is poking his finger around in the sand. It’s an instinctive thing.”
Sand sculpting is a strange way to make a living, and there aren’t many people in the world who devote much time to it. But it has worked out well for Sandy, who says she sees the world differently now as an artist. The sculpting lessons she gives allow her to teach, and she’s gotten to love the travel. In contests she breaks from the usual subjects—a man and a woman embracing, Greek mythology, fish—and uses the sculpture to tell new stories of her own.
Today, Sandy’s sandcastlecentral.com is one of the most popular sand sculpting Web sites in the world, with sculpting tips as well as information on how to book lessons, commission sculptures, or buy Sons of the Beach tools, books, and painted pith helmets. “I wish there were more hours in the day,” Sandy Feet says. “I’ve got so many projects I want to tackle.” She is working on a third sand sculpting book right now, with all the details of the Sons of the Beach “scoop-plop-flatten-jiggle” hand-stacking method, while still running her own Web publishing business. “People come to me and say, ‘Someday, when I can afford it, I’m gonna do what you do, live on the beach and do what I want,'” Sandy tells me. But the transition wasn’t so easy for her. She just knew it was time to do something a little more fun with her time. “You’re never going to be comfortable giving up that regular paycheck,” she says. “It takes determination, a refusal to do anything boring.”
Fred, who can see South Padre Island from his dock behind his home in Laguna Vista, agrees. Until recently, he wouldn’t have guessed he would be traveling the world again, building sand castles, of all things. But when he got the hunch a year and a half ago that he’d found something he liked, he sat himself down in the sand and dug in. “It takes lots of self discipline and hard work,” he tells me, “to be able to play as hard as I do.”