Castles Built to Order, to Crumble


NINETEEN years ago, Gerry Kirk picked up a bucket and headed to the beach to help his daughter build sand castles. Today, his daughter is studying to be a translator for international business in Stuttgart, West Germany, and Kirk is still building sand castles. It seems Mr. KIrk's profession is a science as well as an art: ``To build a castle you need to shovel up sand into the shape of a volcano, fill the center with water, then keep building the sides up as you fill it with more water and sand. When you get it as high as you want, scrape the dry sand off the outside and start carving your towers, walls, and windows.''

Kirk is the owner and guiding force behind Sand Sculptors International (SSI), a for-profit company based in Solana Beach, Calif. Kirk and his associates build castles - and a multitude of other sand creations - all over the world.

Their creations don't come cheap. A good, formidable-looking castle - a castle that may last less than a week - will typically cost upwards of $15,000 to build (labor and materials). Bigger castles that look like small movie sets cost much more.

Yet how else could Kaseda City on Kyushu Island in southern Japan buy a 36-foot high castle for their beach? Or could the Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., celebrate July 4th with the help of an 180-ton Garfield?

Not all of Kirk's sand creations are quite as grand. Recently he was in Boston to build a castle for an exhibit at a convention sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives. Although the ASAE castle was a mere nine feet from base to highest medieval turret - and was competing with a convention full of flashy booths - it drew a cluster of admirers. ``I saw it in the distance. I couldn't believe it was for real,'' remarked one man.

Kirk and his works-in-sand weren't always as celebrated - or as profitable. For years he worked informally near his home in Solana Beach with a group of like-minded sand enthusiasts.

Then in 1981, a hotel in San Diego commissioned him to do a replica of a proposed 600-room addition for a party being put on for potential financiers. Word-of-mouth from that job brought him more work, and four years ago he decided to stop working as a building contractor and start working full time as a sand sculptor.

Depending on the size of the castle, Kirk will work with one or more assistants. He also depends heavily on volunteers, and for big jobs - ones involving sand-moving equipment - he can keep scores of volunteers busy.

Cathy Colvin, a sand sculptor with SSI, says ``I'm just thrilled I can make a living at this.''

Kirk castles are replete with jutting towers and jagged crenulations. Staircases race between walls like the notes of a jazz riff. It's all very spontaneous.

But when SSI does a re-creation of an actual structure, Kirk and company will study photographs and chart a realistic representation. Modifications are often necessary to carve what is essentially a pile of wet sand. Sand tumbles easily if walls are built too steep. Care must be taken to support the weight of each element of a sculpture.

``Sand sculpturing appeals to me because I meet people, travel, and create images that are different and powerful,'' says Kirk. He adds that there is something basic about building in sand that brings out families, energizes communities, and inspires castle builders in their 90s to pitch in.

Kirk has worked alongside a multitude of nationalities, and says sand speaks ``an international language'': Castle builders work together toward a common goal that transcends barriers of language, he says.

Does it bother him that his creations aren't permanent?

``Well, what is permanent?'' Kirk asks. ``Even the pyramids aren't permanent. That's why I photograph everything - something I recommend to everyone who is serious about sand-castle building. This way, I can carry away an 18-ton sand castle in my back pocket.''

Already his group - along with several thousand volunteers - is cited in ``The Guinness Book of World Records'' for producing the ``world's tallest sand castle,'' a 52-foot ``Lost City of Atlantis'' built three years ago in Treasure Island, Fla. But Kirk now has plans for a much taller sculpture.

In addition, he is at the forefront of plans for several international sand-castle building contests during the next couple of years. A powerful participant will be a sister group in Japan that shares the Sand Sculptors International name.

Kirk responds to questions about the oddity of his profession by saying, ``If you don't do what you want to do, you're not happy.'' But he admits, ``My daughter often asks me, `Dad, when are you going to get a real job?'''

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