Editor’s note: This story originally aired on July 16, 2011
In 1896, America’s first public beach was established in Revere, a working class city five miles north of Boston. More than 100 years later, the beach is enjoying a revitalization, thanks in part to the annual Revere Beach National Sand Sculpting Festival. This year, ten professional sand sculptors from four countries and five US states are hard at work on the beach.
“There’s no tricks, no magic. It’s sand and water,” Meredith Corson explained.
Corson flies up from Treasure Island, Florida every year to organize this event. She’s been a sand sculptor for more than 25 years, and it’s now her full time job. Believe it or not, sculpting sand is a pretty good living.
These sculptors don’t take time off their jobs to compete in this event, Corson explains. The sponsors of the event pay for everything from airfare to hotel charges, and win or lose, everyone gets an appearance fee.
But, with a $5,000 prize for first place, this is a competition in every sense of the word. Sculptors must do all the work themselves, no hiring younger backs for the heavy lifting, and they have just 30 hours over four days to complete their entries. Corson says, competition isn’t for everyone.
“It’s not just being a good sculptor,” Corson said. “You have to be physical. You have to be fast. And you have to be talented.”
Building Up the FormsWednesday is known as pound up day. Each competitor was given an 18′ x 18′ plot and 12 tons of sand, a special variety trucked in from Hudson, New Hampshire. At the sound of a whistle, they crossed over the barrier into their plots and began shoveling. Those 12 tons of sand had to first be moved to the side, allowing for wooden or plastic forms to be carefully positioned in the center of each plot. Then, it was compression time.
For the rest of the day, a layer at a time, each sculptor shoveled sand into a form, topped it off with bucket after bucket of water, and stomped each layer flat like the characters on I Love Lucy stomped grapes for wine. What’s left, Corson says, doesn’t look at all like a sand sculpture.
“It looks like tiers of a birthday cake or wedding cake,” Corson said. “And then when they’re at the top, it’s dual purpose. It’s also their scaffolding.”
While most of his rivals were still stomping, Jonathan Bouchard, or Jobi, from Montreal, Canada had already removed his forms. His sculpture was beginning to take a familiar shape.
He says he’s building a turtle, but he hints that there will be something special about it. Jobi wouldn’t say what it was. He claimed it’s a surprise, even to him.
Jobi won this event last year with his sculpture of a fish. The fish was hollow and inside its mouth stood the perfectly formed figure of a man…think Jonah and the whale. It was something no one had seen before, and because the competitors choose the winner, his innovation was rewarded. Jobi says it’s nice to be judged by people who know the difference between something new and cheap tricks intended to wow the crowd.
“Normally we’re judged by people in the artist [community],” Jobi explained. “They don’t know about technique. They don’t know about a lot of things particular to sand carving.”
The Local Favorite
Further down the beach Matthew Martelli groaned as he lifted yet another bucket of water over his head and dumped it into his rectangular shaped forms.
Martelli is from Revere, but he doesn’t have a home sand advantage. While most of his rivals make ephemeral art out of sand, snow and ice all year long, Martelli is a painter who only builds one sand sculpture a year. And the back-breaking labor wears him out.
“Will I be tired?” Martelli laughed. “I’ll be dead tonight! I’ll be carving tomorrow. If I start now, I’ll probably screw it up.”
The Young Star
Many decades Martelli’s junior, Sue McGrew complained as she climbed down her two tiered wooden form. In a red visor, mirrored sunglasses, and covered head to toe in sand, McGrew looks like she practically lives on the beach. She actually lives in Tacoma, but McGrew didn’t exactly come here straight from Washington.
McGrew traveled to Revere by way of Jelgava, Latvia, where she just finished another sand sculpting festival. She’s been spending her summers flying from festival to festival for years.
McGrew got her start when she was still in high school, which makes her one of the youngest professional sand sculptors in the world. As a recent college graduate with a degree in Stage Management from USC, she didn’t expect to make it her full time career.
“When I started it was just a fun thing,” McGrew explained. “I just loved getting into the sand and getting dirty and making sculptures. But, pretty much the economy crashed in 2008. I didn’t have a job, and I just started doing more contests and more contests and more sand work and now it’s all I do.”
As she shoveled another layer of sand over her head, McGrew laughed at her male competitors’ obvious height advantage. Maybe as a result, while some choose to build tall, McGrew’s forms were wide and lower to the ground. But, she was tight lipped about what would emerge from the sand over the next four days.
“I’m gonna give you the same answer probably everyone else has given you,” McGrew said thoughtfully while sipping on a Diet Coke. “I’m not sure yet. I’m still thinking about it.”
Sand Carving Secrets
Dan Doubleday has been competitively carving sand for sixteen years, and he seems to think that his opponents know more than they’re letting on. He says it’s just all part of the game.
“We call it a spart,” Doubleday said. “Half sport. Half art.”
Doubleday claimed that Revere beach will see the best sand sculpting that’s ever been done during this week’s competition. The artists are all invited by Doubleday and Meredith Corson, who organize this event together. When he competes, Doubleday likes to try to beat the best.
“We have talent that we have found around the world,” Doubleday claimed. “We’ve been to China. We’ve been to Australia. We’ve competed in Europe. All over the place.”
In China, the fans treated Doubleday like a rock star. It’s far from where he started, playing in the sand while his kids enjoyed the beaches of California. After a while, he was invited to his first competition, which led to his second, which led to a new career. He and Corson travel to competitions, exhibitions, television appearances, and corporate jobs all over the world.
“Quite a ride since 1996,” Doubleday laughed. “I never left the States before I started this stuff.”
Revere at Center Stage
Organizers expect 300-thousand people to visit Revere beach over the course of the four day festival, and nobody’s treating anyone like a rock star. But, that doesn’t mean Doubleday isn’t bringing his best work. On Wednesday afternoon, his sculpture was nothing more than a round structure with some inverted cone shapes at the top, but he didn’t even bother to pretend that he didn’t know what it was.
“I can’t tell you that,” Doubleday said. “The secrets here are the ideas. You don’t let it out.”
All will be completed…and revealed, when Doubleday and his competitors put their tools down Saturday afternoon. The sculptures will remain standing until the elements render them unrecognizable, at which point the city will flatten them into an extra soft layer for beachgoers to enjoy for the rest of the summer.