Sand comes to life on the Atlantic City beach
From where I stood, I could see what looked like a giant purse in the middle of a sand sculpture, surrounded by two very busy artists. I figured they were making something with a feminine theme, so I wanted to make sure I got a chance to see it take shape.
I didn’t go directly to their site; I was too busy admiring the other sculptures that had already been completed. I was in Atlantic City with a friend and her 11-year-old cousin for DO AC Sand Sculpting World Cup to see this year’s competition among sand sculptors from all over the world. For us spectators, this was more an exhibition than a competition, which is in its second year.
The competitors first created individual pieces and now were paired for even grander work. As I watched them, I was reminded of little girls and boys building monuments on the beach, their feet and clothes dusted with sand, their hands delicately carving or packing or scraping sand into an intelligible image.
I finally made it over to the giant purse. Alongside it, the artists had carved a young boy in clothing from the early 20th century. I walked around to the back and came upon a family standing tightly together. Then it hit me: These were immigrants.
That wasn’t an oversized purse, but a suitcase. The images reminded me of photos I’d seen of immigrant families and their baggage on Ellis Island. In fact, these images looked like photographs.
“These are immigrants,” I said rather than asking Michela Ciappini, an Italian sculptor who was one of the few female artists in the competition. “This is Ellis Island.”
Yes, she replied, referring to the immigrants. She said that the space in front of them – which had yet to be finished – would show their memories. The sculpture itself was called “Memories.” Her artist-partner was Bruce Phillips (of SandStormFab) of the United States.
For me, this was the most creative concept of all the sculptures: A tribute to immigrants, not only those who settled in this country but perhaps other countries, too. Ellis Island in New York was the main immigration station from 1892 to 1924, the years of the greatest influx. During that time, more than 12 million European immigrants came through it. Fewer were allowed in the country in the intervening years; it closed in 1954.
The sculptures were spread out over a small area on the beach at Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Resorts Casino Hotel and the Steel Pier. They will be on display for free from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily until July 6, and are well worth the trip down to the Shore.
The 20 artists began crafting their individual pieces a week ago, using 500 tons of a fine grade of sand that had been hauled in by a company that supplies sand and gravel to golf courses. That type of sand was used because it held together better than beach sand. It was tan in color, much unlike the powdery gray stuff that got inside my shoes as I walked among the pieces.
The sculptures were made entirely from sand and water, and then sprayed with a biodegradable solution and water to help them withstand the weather. It’s the same type that’s used in road construction projects, artist Rusty Croft of the Travel Channel show “Sand Masters” noted.
Surprisingly, the earlier sculptures were still intact, but we spectators were admonished not to touch them. Each piece was roped off so that we could not get in touching distance.
Although beach comes to mind when you think of sand sculpting, Croft told me that he rarely sculpted on the beach. You can build anywhere, he said, which made sense since the sand could easily be brought in. It can even be done inside (that reminded me of the gigantic Aunt Jemima sugar sculpture that artist Kara Walker created inside a defunct factory in Brooklyn).
In their own way, all of the sculptures were beautiful. The likenesses were amazing, and some of the works looked as if they’d just stepped off a canvas.
It was near this same spot on the Atlantic City beach that sand sculpting took root. It was started in 1897 by a man named Philip McCord, who is considered the godfather of sand sculpting. He sculpted a drowned woman and her baby, titling it “Cast Up By the Sea.” He was later joined by other such sculptors, according to a booklet accompanying the competition.
They all relied on tips from spectators (called “rail birds” back then because they watched from the Boardwalk railing), allowing some of them to make a living at it, the booklet said. (At this year’s event, small plastic upturned jars were placed at each of the sculptures for $1 contributions as part of a People’s Choice awards contest for the artists. I tipped the immigrants.)
From 1897 to 1944, sand sculpting became so popular that hotels printed postcards bearing the sculptures as a draw to tourists. It had become an art form that grew beyond Atlantic City to the world.
The earliest sculptors included African Americans, among them Owen Golden, according to a 1992 essay “Selling Sand and Sea” by Holly Metz for Clarion magazine. These artists, though, were not often acknowledged, she wrote. Metz found a 1902 Atlantic City Press photo of the one-armed Golden standing with lions he had carved. In another instance, she wrote, an African American sculptor on a 1910 postcard distributed in Germany was touched up to appear white when reproduced in this country.
The article contains photos of early African American sand sculptors and additional information pertaining to them. Metz also mentioned Lida Hall, who took photographs of life in the city and on the Boardwalk from 1913 to 1925 that included African American sculptors.
I also came across a 1922 photo from the Rochester Herald newspaper of a man named Robert Pernell, a sand artist at Charlotte Beach in Rochester, NY, who said he was inspired after seeing sand artists in Atlantic City.
Sand sculpting lost its fervor around 1944 when it was no longer advertised as a city attraction and was banned by local ordinance.
The new Atlantic City competition seems to be telling us that it’s back.