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29th Annual American Sand Sculpting Championship

Sep 29, 2015 08:56AM ● Published by Cory Batelaan

By Matthew Solan

Think about the majestic and creative sand castles you built as a child, using only plastic cups and shovels.

Now think of the masterpieces the likes of Monet, Picasso, Dali and even Tim Burton could create in the sand and you have a better image of the kind of elaborate designs that can emerge at the 29th Annual American Sand Sculpting Championship.

What began as a tiny, two-day beach attraction now spans 10 days, draws tens of thousands of visitors—and master sand sculptors from around the United States, Canada and Europe. The 2015 event begins November 20 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel on the south end of Estero Island on Fort Myers Beach. It promises 10 days of intense competition, with mind-boggling sculptures created by master sand sculptors and also advanced amateur sculptors.

The competition has grown from a small affair with a handful of curious onlookers to one of the most watched spectator happenings in the area. “We started this event hoping to draw some off-season visitors to the area,” says Bud Nocera, president of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, the event’s lead sponsor. The word “success” seems inadequate to describe the chamber’s cumulative efforts over the years: The 2014 championship drew more than 40,000 visitors. 

Build It and They Will Come

IMG_6686The championship creates a huge cultural footprint. It covers more than 200,000 square feet on Fort Myers Beach, and requires gathering more than 2 million pounds of sand, prepping the sand with water and then packing it into wooden forms for the artists. Because every sculptor needs ready access to water—the only “glue” allowed—a network of temporary water pipes crisscrosses the beach to supply a designated spigot for each 20-by-20-foot sculpting site.

Championship entry is by invitation, so only top-level sand sculptors compete in both singles and doubles divisions. The Florida Advanced Amateur State Championships is part of the larger event; altogether the artists create more than 30 unique, super-sized sand sculptures. A total of $5,000 in prize money is divided among the divisions’ winners and runners-up at the closing-day awards ceremony.

How are winners chosen? The judges look for creativity, imagination and skill revealed by the complexity and fine details of each finished piece. “The fine details are what set these sculptures apart,” explains Marianne Knight of The Sand Lovers, a sand sculpting event management company.

Past designs have included everything from giant garden gnomes and human statues to designs inspired by fantasy, science fiction and pop culture. If you can think of it, it probably can be made into sand.

Every year judges are selected among area locals who have art, architecture or engineering backgrounds. There is also a People’s Choice prize, awarded to the sculpture that garners the most quarters (used as “voting ballots”) from the thousands of admiring visitors who pass by.

IMG_6708Always a crowd pleaser are the daily “Quick Sand” speed-sculpting competitions where, on the tented pavilion stage, sculptors have just 10 minutes to represent in sand an idea thrown out from a chosen member of the audience. The final winner gets $500 donated to the charity of his or her choice. And twice a day, every day, master and advanced amateurs offer sand-sculpting lessons and demonstrations.

On the first Sunday of the event, anyone of any age can try his or her hand at sculpting in the amateur solo, family and corporate team competitions. Registration opens at 9 a.m. and competition runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with an awards ceremony at 4 p.m. (To see the Amateur Competition rules, visit: fmbsandsculpting.com/amateur-contest/.)

Fun in the Sun and Sand

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, visitors can mingle and check out the local treasures at the tented Sand Vendor Village, co-sponsored by Pinchers Crab Shack and Texas Tony’s Rib House. The area buzzes with a children’s scavenger hunt and entertainment zone, live music, retail vendors from around the country and local craftspeople showcasing and selling their inspired arts and crafts.

IMG_6735Other fun activities include a “Photo Opportunity Sculpture.” It’s available for visitors to “step into” and customize with their own names, which makes for a most unusual post card or Christmas card.

Beach visits are synonymous with food, and the championship is a great way for attendees to sample local delicacies. "This is one of the signature events in Lee County, so it makes sense that participants have the chance to taste fresh seafood, award-winning BBQ and signature dishes," says Kevin Rooney, events director for Pinchers Crab Shack and Texas Tony’s Rib House.

Of course, putting together the Annual American Sand Sculpting Championship requires special expertise. The Sand Lovers owners Bill and Marianne Knight coordinate and carry out the countless chores and details, which has helped the event become “one of the largest sand sculpting competitions in the world,” notes Bill Knight.

Another intriguing aspect for visitors are sculptures created by sand sculpting teams at the various sponsor sites, such as the Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, the Key West Express, Pinchers Crab Shack, the Wyndham Garden Hotel and others. Each design features certain key images that reflect the area’s tourism industry.

“Last year they used two tons of sand and created a 1914 Model T car for us,” says Janet Wilson, public relations and marketing director for the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. “It was incredible. The year before they built a model of the Edison home.”

This year, The Sand Lovers welcomes world-renowned sculptor Melineige Beauregard as part of its sculpting team at the sponsor sites. Montreal-based Beauregard won the first Women’s Only World Sand Sculpting Championships in 2013, and was part of the winning doubles teams in both Fort Myers and the Canadian Open last year.

IMG_6888What is the Fort Myers Beach championship like from a sand sculptor’s point of view? Beauregard loves its high level of competition. “I am always inspired by all the different styles of sculptures created by these artists,” she says.

For Beauregard, such events are like family reunions. This will be her fourth year competing in the championship. She explains, “There are not many of us in the world who do this work, so we are kind of like a family, and love to be together.”

What better representation of our wonderful corner of the world than a competition showcasing artists who create masterpieces using sun and sand, just two of the elements that make Fort Myers Beach such an incomparable destination, says Linda Miller of the Key West Express.

The championship is also an opportunity for the entire community to see and be seen. The sand and artists are the stars, but it’s the area beaches that shine.

“It is such a unique event that helps drive tourism and showcases one of the region's best assets—its world-class beaches,” says Jim Gibson, director of marketing at Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee. “It is these type of events that we love to get behind to improve the quality of life here on the Paradise Coast and build awareness in the rest of the world.”

In other words, just another day at the beach.

 

What You Need to Know:

  • Daily admission is $5 for those age 5 and older. Children age 4 and under have free admission. Save money by purchasing advance online day and multi-day passes.
  • As in the past, 20 percent of the opening day’s gate proceeds will go to Make-A-Wish Southern Florida Inc.
  • For a schedule of events and list of sponsors, visit: fmbsandsculpting.com.
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