‘Everything we make, we get to let go of’: Traveling sculptors shape sandcastles on steroids


They’re here and then they’re gone, just like their art.

The annual U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge being held on the Broadway Pier this weekend is an invitation-only event: 12 master carvers brought in from around the globe, all expenses paid, to wield the tools of their trade in front of thousands of gawking, camera-toting visitors.

And it is a trade. These are people who make a living turning large piles of sand and water into jaw-dropping depictions of people, animals, cars, angels, trees, wine bottles and on and on — even, in an occasional nod to tradition, castles.

“We’ve come a long way from the days when you did this for a six-pack of beer,” said Bruce Phillips, a San Diego sculptor who decided which artists to invite this year.

Some, like Agnese Rudzite-Kirillova, spend half of the year traveling from one place to another with their trowels and brushes. She’s from Latvia, and it took her 24 hours to get to San Diego for the competition.

In a few days she’ll go home before heading off to a sculpting festival in Poland.

Said Leonardo Ugolini, a competitor from Italy: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t know what city I’m in.”

Saturday he was in San Diego, putting the finishing touches on his creation. The sculpting started Wednesday, a day after some 300 tons of sand — coarser than what’s found on local beaches — was trucked in from a quarry in East County and dumped on the floor of a roofed, open-sided building on the pier.

The sand was shoveled into square, wooden forms and sprayed with water, which eventually yielded compact cubes ready for carving. The competitors then had four days to work their magic, finishing up Saturday afternoon. The judges came in shortly after with their scorecards.

Winners will be announced Sunday. Top prize is $5,000.

This year’s theme is “Celebration,” and the artists took that in all kinds of directions. Ugolini made a giant brain and called it “Cerebration,” explaining, “You need a mind to celebrate.”

Rudzite-Kirillova titled hers “Who Are You?” It features a woman with a cat’s head, looking down at a real cat. “The idea is to celebrate the real you,” she said. “Be yourself.”

Dan Belcher, from St. Louis, carved a large raven breaking free from a cage. He shrugged off questions about his intent. “It depends on what people want to see in it,” he said.

Like several of the other artists, he traced his roots to his sandbox-days as a child. In college in Kansas, he studied landscape architecture, but it was a sculpture he saw in Florida by one of the pioneers of sand carving, Solana Beach’s Gerry Kirk, that ignited his passion.

That was close to 30 years ago, and now he’s been all over the world for contests or paid commissions.

Saturday, Belcher had with him his usual tool kit, which includes items from the worlds of masonry (margin trowels and knee pads), cake baking (icing spatulas), horse grooming (spiral spring comb), and painting (brushes). In his hands, they brought out the feathery detail in the raven’s wings and the sharp edges of the bars in the cage the bird was escaping.

All that effort and skill, all those hours spent — and come Tuesday it will be piles of sand again, headed back to the quarry.

“You can’t get into sand sculpture if you’re into permanence,” Belcher said. “Everything we make, we get to let go of.”

Maybe that’s why he called his piece “Liberation.”

Public viewing of the sculptures continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Monday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Ticket prices and other information about the event, which includes food trucks, music, art booths and a kids’ zone, is available at