What It’s Like to Be a Professional Sand Sculptor
Travel the world from the comfort of your sandbox.
Apparently, if you make a sand sculpture on the Atlantic City shore today, you’re breaking the law. Not sandcastles—go ahead and flip over as many plastic pails you want—but sand sculptures, those intricate works akin to Renaissance marble masterpieces, just in a different, more collapsible medium. Sand sculptures were, in fact, first created on those very beaches of New Jersey, and in a very Atlantic City way. Inside the buildings, people hustled each other with playing cards; outside the hustlers turned to sand.
“Way back in 1897, when the world famous boardwalk in Atlantic City was first built, a fella’ by the name of Philip McCord started carving sand along the boardwalk,” says John Gowdy, former captain in the Atlantic City Fire Department and current celebrated sand sculptor who has traveled the world competing in sculpting competitions. “He was a talented guy simply working for tossed coins.”
McCord depicted a drowned mother and a baby laying on the sand, and when the first coin hit his upturned Derby hat, it made him the first documented professional sand sculptor. Soon, word got around that you could get money for making these ephemeral—and cheap—works, and by 1900, city blocks were filled with enterprising sand “artists” (it would be generous to say they all had talent). The shores were both studios and crowded museums, and sculptors started adding cement to the sand mixture so pieces would last through winter. “It got out of hand, there were so many sand sculptors along the boardwalk,” says Gowdy.
Then, in 1944, the Great Atlantic Hurricane hit, hammering New Jersey, stranding trolleys, destroying bridges, and uprooting telephone poles. In Atlantic City, piers broke away and entire sections of boardwalk were torn off and deposited miles inland. Millions of dollars were sustained in damage. And those cement sand sculptures were all reduced to rubble (though, some of the pieces were rescued and found their way into the collection of local historian Robert E. Ruffolo of Princeton Antiques bookshop).
“It got out of hand, there were so many sand sculptors along the boardwalk”
City officials saw an opportunity. After the hurricane, they decided they’d had enough of the sand entrepreneurs, and banned sculpting along the shore. If you wanted to be a seashore artist, you would now need written consent from the mayor, with the stipulation that the pieces contain no nudity, obscene subjects, or advertising. And the law is still on the books—which is why, in 2013, when Gowdy and his wife Laura put together the inaugural Sand Sculpting World Cup in AC, they needed the mayor’s John Hancock for approval. Gowdy created a fitting ceremonial contract. “I actually did the ordinance in sand,” he says. “And the mayor came down and signed it, and pressed his hand prints.”
A Sand Man Is Born
2014 was the second and last year of the Sand Sculpting World Cup (they’re looking for funding to revive it, if you know anyone), but Gowdy manages to keep himself quite busy. First, there’s the sand sculpting business he runs with his wife Laura, which came together after people around town caught wind of his hobby. When he began, he was still working for the Atlantic City Fire Department.
“People started asking me to [make sand sculptures] for them and their businesses, so I started carving for them when I was off,” he says. “It started getting out of hand, and my accountant eventually said, ‘John it’s time to start a company.’”
With Laura, he’s sculpted everything from wedding proposals (a next-level version of taking a stick and writing “Will You Marry Me” in the sand) to a nautical tableau for Good Morning America. They’ve done police and firefighter memorials, a tribute to healthcare workers that went viral, and one especially poignant piece on Omaha Beach in Normandy for the White House Commission of Remembrance.
“It was very emotional for me,” says Gowdy. “We took the sand off the beach where these guys crawled across, and built a piece for the [D-Day] anniversary.” When the tide came in, it washed the sculpture away bit by bit. “It took away the man’s mandible first, and then he kind of slumps forward with the helmet. This guy basically died, eroded back to the sand.”
And then there’s competition life. Today, Gowdy is kind of a big deal in the sand sculpting arena, one of the best in the world competing solo and with Laura, winning competitions like the North American, International, and The World Championships of Sand Sculpture. If you want to learn his techniques, you can catch him at the upcoming International Sand Sculpting Championship at the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach (September 30 to October 10), where he’ll be teaching a workshop this year.
He and Laura have also been on television shows, like the wacky Sand Wars, filmed for the Travel Channel on the beaches of Siesta Key, Florida, home to this year’s Siesta Key International Sand Sculpting Festival (November 11 to 14). In the show, sculptures were packed with dynamite, and audience members voted on the best. “If sculptures weren’t the favorites, they blew up,” says Laura. (If you wanna watch things go boom, head over here).
But for all his accolades, Gowdy got into sand sculpting much like you or I would: on the beach, playing around with a bucket and a shovel while trying to keep his kids entertained.
“When the water was cold, we started digging holes in the sand for them, making bathtubs, accidentally creating a pile of sand,” he says. “We picked up popsicle sticks and shells and started carving sandcastles.”
Gowdy studied painting in college, and it was apparent his kids had an artistic bent as well. They formed a family sand sculpting team—the Rowdy Gowdys—and competed in amateur competitions with themes like Ninja Turtles (awesome). Then, in 1992, Gowdy was invited to his first professional—or Master—sand sculpting competition, the American Sand Sculpting Championship in Fort Myers, Florida. He went just to get a feel for it, but wowed the judges with his rendition of Neptune’s hands. “They were huge hands, like twelve feet or something, chained to the corner post of the plot, and he was trying to reach for the key on the sand dunes,” Gowdy recalls. “A lot of my pieces were environmental back then, and my theme was beach erosion and the importance of sand dunes.”
He ended up placing third, later going on to win the whole thing four times. “After that, I started competing at a professional level,” he says. “Learning from the other guys, I developed my own style and formed really good friendships that I still have today.”
There’s no need for practice these days—“I carve sand every day, so I just use jobs to practice now”—but in the beginning of his professional career, Gowdy needed to hone his craft. “After that first Master’s competition, I put a sandbox in my backyard. And when the kids grew up and didn’t use the inground pool anymore, I filled my inground pool up with sand.” If you’re keeping track, that’s two sandboxes in the yard. They’re mostly just for show though. “We’re just constantly carving, so we really don’t need to practice in our sandbox anymore.”
Instead, they simply show up with a design in mind and get to work. In competitions, solo participants get a roped-off plot of land, typically 15-square-feet in size, and 10 tons of sand. Duos get a 20-square-foot plot and 20 tons of sand, brought in from elsewhere.
They flatten the pile and compact it, then shovel the sand into plastic or wood forms, tamping every six inches with water. “And then it’s like a birthday cake,” says Gowdy. “Every two feet, you put another form and another form on top and they get smaller as you go up.” After the cake is made, you carve away to reveal the final form, which, for the Gowdys, is a team effort. “Laura does all the lettering for us,” says Gowdy. “I rough out, and I call her my smoothie girl. She does detail and pretties it up a little bit.”
Every competition is different, and it’s a crapshoot in terms of what type of sand you’ll get. “We don’t use the beach sand because it’s not strong enough for what we want to do,” says Gowdy. “Usually, a local quarry that sells sand has a small percentage of clay naturally in it.” The problem is, though, you never know how much clay you’re gonna get. “You can have too much clay in the sand, for sure—it gets muddy and it won’t drain. It's a balancing act.”
Then you’re generally given 30 hours to turn your plot into a large-scale work of art, in some cases reaching as high as 30 feet. It’s physically demanding, both maneuvering the sand and hauling buckets of water to the site. And there’s a fair amount of smack talk going on—these guys have been competing with each other for years.
“Some guys just do castles,” he quips. “It’s hard to stay unique when you’re doin’ castles all the time.”
The hardest part for Gowdy, however, is coming up with a novel design, as he’s already done so many. It’s not something everyone worries about, apparently. “Some guys just do castles,” he quips. “It’s hard to stay unique when you’re doin’ castles all the time.”
But there’s big money involved—sometimes, $10,000 for the first prize-winner—and originality usually makes up a third of the judging criteria. So it pays to stay innovative.
“I bring in Laura sometimes so I have fresh thoughts in my head for design, but that’s the hardest part right now,” says Gowdy. “You gotta stay unique in this field, and everyone’s seen your work. If you repeat a piece, it’s not good. They frown on that.”
A Religious Encounter
It’s pretty easy to see why Gowdy loves sand sculpting. It’s a playful activity usually reserved for childhood, but he made it into a career. It’s soothing, at points. You can make serious money, and travel—Gowdy’s competed in 25 countries including India and Thailand. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet the love of your life.
Gowdy met Laura, an elementary school teacher, while competing in Italy in 2004. “At the time, my hobby was painting,” she says. “And then I met John and saw the sculptures and I couldn’t believe the sand could be vertical.” He taught her about sand sculpting, and they became an inseparable team, both on and off the beach. After he retired, he moved to Italy in 2006.
And it was through Laura that the couple got the opportunity to sculpt for Pope Francis. “One of my students was the son of the Pope’s bodyguard,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it, because we live near Venice, and the Pope obviously is in the Vatican near Rome. Jokingly, I said to the boy, ‘Tell your dad that if we can donate a sculpture to the Pope, we will go to Rome and make something for him.' The boy came the next day with a phone number, and said to call it.”
They ended up making the Pope’s coat of arms and a replica of his church in Buenos Aires using sand from the river Piave, a World War I battle site. But there was a problem: They had never moved a sand sculpture before. The donation was to be presented in St. Peter’s Basilica, but then it had to be transported to St. Peter’s Square seven steps down, where the Pope addresses his weekly audience. “I made a system, kind of like a stretcher with metal poles that we can put under the sculpture,” says Gowdy. “I practiced moving it a lot.”
After they built the sculpture in the Basilica—surreally, right next to Michelangelo's Pietà—they loaded it on the stretcher and moved it down the steps. Luckily, it stayed intact. “There’s a great photo we have of him poking his finger in it, looking at us smiling," says Gowdy. "What a great guy.”
“He looked at us and said ‘Is it real sand?’” adds Laura. “And we said ‘Yes, it’s real sand.’ This was something magical.”