From garden gnomes to Willie Nelson, Port Aransas Sandfest sculptures never disappoint

People’s Choice Award winners Walter McDonald and Christy McDonald Atkinson, 2019 Texas SandFest. Photo by Kastle Kelley, courtesy of Texas SandFest.

Each year, as temperatures rise, friends and families from across the state descend on the long, wide beaches of Port Aransas on Mustang Island. Chances are, if you visit Texas SandFest, you might see some famous faces too.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the annual springtime event, the largest native sand sculpture competition in the United States. It attracts the top talent in the art form, as well as over 35,000 annual viewers. In years past, artists have sculpted larger-than-life replicas of everyone from Carlos Santana to Abraham Lincoln and Willie Nelson, as well as an array of animals, mythical creatures and garden gnomes, for to name a few.

In this year’s competition, 20 master sculptors are vying for sand sculpting glory with eight semi-professionals from the United States, Canada, Italy and France, and 150 amateur sculptors, who participate on a first-mover basis. arrived, first served. In total, their creations will be made with approximately 230 tons of sand.

Prior to serving as event coordinator, Daytona Beach’s Suzanne Altamare first came to Mustang Island as a competitor in the early 2000s. Over the years, she has seen Texas SandFest grow from a small local competition at an internationally renowned three-day festival.

“When I started coordinating sculptors in 2008, it wasn’t nearly as big as it is now,” she says. While artists mostly have the freedom to express themselves, Altamare has one rule: “I don’t want to see any political agendas or politics there. We’ve had enough, everyone’s had enough.

In addition to watching the artists at work, the event, which spans the beach from mile markers 9 to 13, features live music, food trucks, races and sand sculpting lessons for children from all ages. Even better, funds raised through admission fees, beer sales, official merchandise, sponsorships and donations help provide scholarships for high school students and support local charities and places like the bank. food and animal shelter, as well as the Port Aransas Community Theater, Fire Department and EMS.

The size of the sculptures is only limited by the amount of sand provided. Solo masters competitors get 10 meters each (one meter of sand weighs about 1.3 tonnes), while double masters teams get 20 meters and semi-pros get 9.

Solo masters, who work in a 20 square foot area, can create up to 30 hours over a four-day period, with dual teams of masters getting the same time with a slightly larger 30 square foot workspace.

Sue McGrew from Washington State and Benoit Dutherage from Southern France are part of the masters duo participating this year. Like most sand sculptors, McGrew and Dutherage learned the art form through years of trial and error. “There is no school for sand sculpting,” says McGrew, explaining that each artist has their own approach and technique. “The sculptures themselves are just sand and water…and sometimes a bit of sweat, blood and tears.”

She and her fellow sculptors use a wide range of tools, from straws to shovels, forks, palette knives and horse brushes, as well as their feet, which help compact the sand after it has been mixed with water.

“There’s something so interesting about watching people work,” says McGrew, who previously starred on the Travel Channel show Sand Masters TV program. “It’s like performance art.”

While the sculptors are at the mercy of the elements and the tides, the sand of the Texas coast fortunately works in their favor. “The sand here is super fine as powder,” says Dutherage, who was a chef in his former life. McGrew agrees, adding that while she often works with river sand because it’s finer and has a higher silt content, Mustang Island sand is exceptional.

Most poignant for both sculptors is the fleeting and ephemeral beauty of this art form. “We put so much energy into the sand, and we know that in the end it will go away,” says Dutherage.

Over the years Altamare has seen thousands of onlookers respond to the sculptures on Mustang Island. “It’s very inspiring,” she shares. “Sometimes people cry. You can bring out a lot of emotions with sand.

At the end of the weekend, cash prizes are awarded to the People’s Choice winner, in addition to the first and second choices in each category. However, even with its competitive spirit, Altamare says the warm and friendly atmosphere of Texas SandFest makes it unique and special. “We stay together at the beach lodge, we eat together, we’re kind of a weird little tribe,” she laughs. “We really are at home here.”

Texas Sandfest is open to the public April 8-10, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $5 to $20; children 5 and under enter free. Buy tickets in line or cash at the door.