Architects of sand

Forget sand castles. Entire palaces are springing up on beaches as contests take off.

An onshore breeze snaps the flags along the promenade at Hampton Beach as the sunburned legions push past Playland Arcade and crowd the rail across from Blink's fried dough, jostling for a spot.

Sand sculptors have come here to compete – $15,000 in prize money is on the line – and all eyes are on a roped-off parcel where the masters are just warming up, carving nursery-rhyme-themed works as big as compact cars, that incorporate event sponsors.

"Look at the structure of the cheeks on Mother Goose," says Jane Merritt, up from Tewksbury, Mass., with granddaughters Catherine and Samantha. "Just fantastic," she says, as the girls clutch their dripping ice-cream cones, and gape. "You can even see the ice cubes around the Coke sculpture," based on "Three Men in a Tub."

Ms. Merritt will be back tomorrow, she says. So will the sand masters, a dozen of whom will be out here seven hours a day for the next three days transforming their respective 10-ton mounds – excavated from a local sand pit that has a higher silt content than beach sand – into whatever moves them.

It won't necessarily be castles. This international art form has shifted well beyond moats and turrets and grown increasingly competitive as interest has risen – producing al fresco exhibitions to rival some of the best public art.

"They get more sophisticated every year," says John Joynt, a repeat volunteer here at the Hampton Beach Master Sand Sculpting Competition. He has the same reply for anyone who remarks on the intricacy of these warm-up works: "Just wait."

It's not that tools or techniques have gone high-tech. Common kitchen and painter's tools generally serve. Consider Etual Ojeda, a legendary sand sculptor from the Canary Islands (and not among the competitors here).

"He uses a soup ladle and two pieces of wood, one large and one small, and he does the most elaborate things," says Greg Grady, the Hampton event's organizer and a well-known sand sculptor.

The materials are even more basic. "People don't believe it's just sand and water," says Mr. Grady of the works here. "My favorite part of the whole thing is just standing by the wall listening to what people say: 'That's cement,' or 'They put glue in it.' "

In fact, an Elmer's Glue-laced spray is applied to finished works here as a windscreen, Mr. Grady says, to slow deterioration. Before that, a little rain – which is on its way, brought by an onshore breeze – can actually help the binding process.

But adding detail – a claw, a wrinkle, a cornice – within the limits of structural stability is the real challenge of this ephemeral art. Skills have evolved alongside technique.

A century ago in Atlantic City, N.J., artisans carved relief portraits in sand for tourists who were willing to tip. "Then somebody came up with the idea of using wooden forms, and from there we went to the plastic forms," says Grady. "It's basically shoveling sand, adding water, pounding it in, getting it as high as you can, and then carving it down."

What emerges – especially from sand not rounded and "surf-rolled" like beach sand – can be astounding. At Hampton, the pros in the hunt include such legends as Kirk Rademaker and Lucinda "Sandy Feet" Wierenga.

Last year's winner, Karen Fralich from Ontario, Canada, again took first prize ($3,000), this time with the remarkable "Wild Wheels," a sculpture depicting a woman – her hair flowing – astride a half-motorcycle, half-steed.

The rough idea was preconceived, says Ms. Fralich, but not solidified. "I didn't know what it was going to look like." Within a week, "Wild Wheels" will again be a patch of beach. That doesn't faze Fralich. "It feels just fine," she says, "as long as I get to take pictures."

Fralich, who began her career as a potter in 1983 and discovered sand sculpture about a decade later, says she is off next to Junction City, Kan., where a 25-ton mound awaits.

The pipeline of sculptors like Fralich is filling. Today, master-class shows – often with instructional sessions on the side – can be found from Dallas to Dubai.

Georgia's Savannah College of Art and Design sponsors a major sand-sculpture exhibition in May. Artists of all kinds gather in Jesolo, Italy, each summer for a sandcastle festival. Last year the city enhanced things with light effects.

In the Netherlands, sand sculpture is part of the curriculum in some schools. "We tend to get a lot of sculptors out of there because of that," Grady says.

Even as it it advances, sand sculptures – like ice sculptures – are generally given a "novelty" label by the art community.

By and large, they depict a "literal and narrative interpretation of fantasy subjects," says A.E. Ted Aub, a sculptor and professor of art at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

"Museum critics would not find much of interest here," he writes in an e-mail. But beachgoers – himself among them – can certainly still delight in the mastery of a very challenging medium, he says.

"To observe the process and product of the sand sculptor," says Professor Aub, "is one of the liveliest and most satisfying forms of summer entertainment."

Sand fans' guide

Want to visit one of the temples of this temporal art?

Sand-castle exhibitions and contests hit high gear around the Fourth of July and continue through Labor Day and beyond. (One of the premier events, Sand Castle Days at South Padre Island, Texas, runs Oct. 19-22 this year.)

The following list – a sample of forthcoming events – comes from sandcastlecentral.com, which posts detailed information about these and other contests around the US and worldwide. (Be sure to double-check the year; portions of the site haven't been updated lately.)

July 28-29 Sand in the City Bowling Green, Ky.

Aug. 1-2 Second Annual Sandcastle & Sculpture Contest Edgartown, Mass.

Aug. 5 28th Annual Sandcastle Contest Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Aug. 5 (rain date, Aug. 12) East Hampton Sandcastle Contest Amagansett Bay, N.Y.

Aug. 19 Sandblast! Crane Beach Ipswich, Mass.

Sept. 3 25th Annual Sand Sculpture Contest, Drakes Beach Point Reyes, Calif.

Sept. 5-10 World Championship, Harrison Hot Springs British Columbia

Sept. 29-30 Sand in the City Bellingham, Wash.

Sept. 29-Oct. 1 North American Sand Sculpting Championship, Neptune Festival Virginia Beach, Va.

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