Saturday, November 1, 2008

‘Arti-sands’ make their mark at Hampton Beach

Written by John Hirtle
For over a hundred years, Hampton Beach has been the place to visit on the New Hampshire seacoast. Where else in the Granite State do surf, sun and sand mix so freely with music, food and fine art?

Fine art?

That’s right.

Every June, artists who are considered masters in their unique field arrive at Hampton Beach to compete in the largest, longest-running Master Sand Sculpting Competition in the New England region.


While this competition appears to be ideal for Hampton Beach, it may seem strange that three hundred tons of sand must be brought to the beach from sandpits in the heart of New Hampshire. That’s because sand sculptors require a special sort of sand, called silt sand. This sand, which has much finer particles than you find at the beach, has a bit of natural clay mixed in to help hold everything together. As the sand is unloaded at the north side of the Seashell Stage on Ocean Boulevard, heavy equipment arranges thirteen piles for the competitors, and several larger piles for a huge central demonstration sculpture and a teaching area for children during the competition.

Once the piles are in place, volunteers and sculptors transform the shapeless heaps of sand into art. The first step is to set up forms and fill them with sand and water, all of which is tamped down to create a solid, damp mass. There is no internal superstructure to support the sandy shapes as they rise – only the sand. Water with a little bit of diluted school glue is sprayed on to help the sand sculpture keep its shape. The only parts of the sculptures that aren’t composed of sand are the thin wires or sticks that poke out from the top of the sculptures to keep birds from perching and damaging the fragile artworks. Even with so much careful preparation, each year at least one of the sand sculptures meets an untimely demise as sculptors push the limits of the shifting sandy material.

ImageDuring the first few days of the event, it is more like a reunion than a competition, as the sculptors arrive and volunteers gather to work on the huge demonstration sand sculpture. This follows a central theme, such as nursery rhymes or the latest movies. Carefully placed within this sandy masterpiece are logos from the various sponsors who help make the competition possible through donations or prize money. The 2006 competition saw $15,000 in purse and entry award money distributed among the participating sculptors.

The group’s demo sculpture is a warm-up for the actual competition. It not only gives spectators a preview of how the actual competition will shape up, it also gives the sculptors a chance to practice with the sand and get a feel for how it behaves.

In the competition, each sand sculptor gets to work in a sixteen-foot square area with ten tons of sand. Once the forms are removed, which are used to create the rough shapes of their sandy sculptures, each of these “arti-sands” is on his or her own during this 21 hour timed solo competition that lasts for three days, rain or shine. Each one has to pile up the sand as he /she sees fit, wetting and tamping it down to create a solid mass that can be carved out.

Sculptors bring their own unique array of tools to work with, ranging from the obvious - such as shovels and trowels - to the less obvious brushes and kitchen utensils. Even a humble drinking straw can be used to blow a few particles of sand out of the way to create unique art forms. With these tools and each sculptor’s imagination, incredible and sometimes unlikely masterpieces rise up from the sand.

Just yards away from the competitors, spectators line the sidewalks day and night, watching and guessing what each sculpture may turn out to be. Will this one be a flower or a fairy? A sailing ship or a living room? Some sculptors trade thoughts about their work in friendly banter between themselves and the spectators. In some cases though, it isn’t until the last hours of the competition that the sculpture takes its final distinctive shape.

When the clock runs out, and the sculpting ends, spectators are allowed down on the beach for a closer look at these sand sculptures, and offer their votes for the “People’s Choice” award, even as a distinguished group of judges makes their own decisions, awarding points for the sculpture’s height, detail, and technical difficulty, among other things. The winners are announced and honored that very night during a break in the entertainment at the Seashell Stage.

Once the competition is over, the sand sculptors scatter to their next destinations, leaving their sandy masterpieces behind. These remain on display for a week so spectators can enjoy them, even as wind and rain slowly cause the finer details to wear away. In the end, loaders return to the beach to remove the sand sculptures for both safety and practical purposes. Once the masterpieces are returned to their original state, the sand is removed for use in one of Hampton’s many public works projects.

The seventh annual Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition begins June 15, 2007, when the sand is delivered to the Beach. The actual timed competition will take place from June 21 to June 23, when judging will be held and the winners will be announced. The sculptures, which are illuminated for night viewing, will remain up until June 28th.

It’s an event you won’t want to miss!


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