August 1: 03F-7

I didn't know it at the time, but this would be the last formed sculpture for the year. The reason had to do with the man I met while doing 03F-5, in May, the one who was in Los Angeles for the church conference. I was about three months away from a singularity I couldn't see beyond, and about a month away from an event so cataclysmic that it still rings in my soul, and I hope it ever does.

The construction image is by Richard Johnson. For more details, read the report that follows the images.

Cold Restart

We last left our intrepid sand sculptor wondering what would come next. He'd just finished a very simple and elegant sculpture.

That thing was almost the end of the story. Just plumb killed the spirit. Yah, it was well done, and even beautiful, but much too organized. Like opening your closet and finding someone else's clothes in there, things you'd never even considered wearing.

Well, it turns out the sculpting spirit is pretty darned tough. After a month or so of wondering if he'd ever sculpt again, the desire started coming back. Maybe it was encouraged by a succession of free-piled sculptures whose major claim to memory space was all those damned shells in there.

Maybe it was just so he could carve sand instead of rocks.
"Wayne, I need to take Friday off. Emergency sand sculpture. Only gluttons for punishment do all-day sculptures on summer weekends."
Maybe it was Michael Nedell's Email: "Rock the beach!"

Build number: 03F-7 (lifetime start #279) screened low-tide sand on low base
Title: "Renaissance: Inside the Music"
Date: August 1
Location: Venice Breakwater, on the flat
Start: 0630; construction time 11 hours
Height: 4.5 feet (Tall Form)
Base: 1.75 feet nominal diameter
Assistant: none
Photo digital: 61 images, Canon Powershot G2 (includes Rich's)
Photo 35mm: none
Photo 6X7: none
Photo volunteer: Rich, w/Canon Z115, complete; builder photos with my G2
Video motion: none (camcorder not brought)
Video still: none
Video volunteer: Construction and completion, by Larry, 34 min w/Elura
New Equipment: various "Hooktail" modified small spatulas; rebuilt Quick Filter

1. What Do You Do When the Past is Better than the Future?

The past may be great, but it's no reason to get out of bed today. Sometimes it seems as if I hit my high point of sculpture in 1996 and have been in retrograde mode ever since. Oh, the tools have developed, and the sculptures have become more complex, but what happened to beauty?

Sometimes there'd be hints. Still, it seemed that 96F-14, "Dance," would forever be the high point. Either I was incompetent or sculpture was harder to learn than I thought. Take your pick.

Still, the day is nice, the cooling breeze is running, and I still enjoy the sharp bite of a well-made tool into a well-made block of screened sand. There is aesthetic pleasure in that simple cut.

If I could stand practice I'd be a musician. I can't, so I'm a sand sculptor who cultivates a short memory for failures. There's always that dream out there ahead, the perfect sculpture that will be so good it will shatter, rend from end to end, anyone who sees it, transporting them instantly to some land so far beyond our cheap reality that we can't even conceive of it.

Music. Some come close. Recently reissued CDs by Renaissance finally present to a 30-year-later audience the soaring vocals and complex unique arrangements. After a day of work I put on the headphones and transport myself to their world. The song, however, always ends and I'm back in my own bed, in this sad world.

Past, future, now. Time. The tide is low, summertime and a long day. Instead of listening to someone else's music, go make your own. Go. Quit thinking about it. That perfect sculpture will never be made in the bedroom.

2. Dive In

Sometimes I have to struggle for sand. It'll be in a thin layer on top that I have to cream-skim. Or it will be under several inches of coarse overburden. Sometimes I have to race the tide for it. Today, however, it's out here by the cubic yard. Just push the shovel in and pick it up. A thousand sand sculptors could work today without using it up. All I need is 17 bucketfuls or so, hardly making a dent in the broad expanse of dark smooth sand.

A low bank of cloud has been hovering offshore, slowly moving eastward. Lazily it makes landfall and the temperature drops a few degrees; the light becomes soft and the sand glows. August in southern California. It could have been blazing warm by now, with hard brassy light. I look at the clouds as a favor. Other sheets of vapor are climbing the mountains, blowing languidly over the ridges and dissipating in the warmer inland air. The coast is finely balanced.

One of the day's objectives is to test the recently rebuilt Quick Filter. Originally 18th-inch hardware cloth over a PVC pipe frame, it how has two sides filled in with sheet plastic in an attempt to control poured-in water better. The other two sides, and the bottom, are covered with hardware cloth; it's intended as a backup for my other screen. Unlike some recent "improvements" this one basically works, but still not as well as the Rectacreenus. Big problem is that the plastic sides make it too slippery to hold onto when the form is nearly full and the screen's handle is too high to reach.

I fill the form to the very top. It's good sand. I only get sand like this once or twice a year.

Now, which of the sculptural ideas will I make? Larry Dudock came ambling along, surprising me. He had to take a day off from work.
"I wanted to get video of you making a sculpture from start to finish. I don't have any recent ones."
All right, he wants to see how a symmetric sculpture is made, so I'll start there. But I want some internal workings, connections from side to side so there'll be something interesting inside this cairn.

The symmetric carving goes a bit more quickly this time. I'm more experienced, and I also know that for this sculpture, whose sides will be well perforated, absolute symmetry won't matter so much.

Once that's done, the rest of the world disappears. I'm gone, into the sculpture, solving problems.

The standout tool of the day turns out to be any of the various small spatulas I bought and then modified by bending their tips up into a "hooktail" shape. Sort of like very small loop tools that can be easily maneuvered into small places. The advantage of the curved-back tip is that the sand is removed as it's cut, unlike the straight spatulas I've used for years. It's amazing how much of a difference this makes.

I first tested these tools on last weekend's free-pile but they weren't effective because of all the shells. Tiny tools too easily stop when they run into shell fragments. Here, in well packed and screened sand, the tools shine and I use them a lot, the various sizes working in different places. Microsculpture just became easy, and true microsculpture, the tabletop variety, might be a worthwhile experiment now.

My first offset-handle small tool like this was home-made. I call it the Pointer, and it was intended to undercut overlapping panels to give the edge more definition. It didn't work; yes, it would cut a line, but the line was all it cut. The sand just stayed there. I learned to use other tools for its intended task, and the Pointer is rarely used. I thought about bending its tip upward but never got around to it. It was different with the spatulas. Bought for $3 apiece I don't much care if an experiment fails. Bend this way, bend that way, try another. It's a new class of tool and only experimentation will show me what works best.

They're good for starting a cut, for defining a new edge, for undercutting an existing piece, for light trimming and they even work as tiny scorps. Better than a straight knife for starting lines because they remove the cut sand. Great. I love it when things work. There are so many ways to fail, and so few in which to succeed.

I merrily go on my way, cutting here and there, and Rich and Larry start talking about devotion to complexity. This happened the last time I got new small tools.

3. Many Voices, One Song

The difference is that this time it works. I've done a lot of sculptures since those ugly 1997 and 1998 jobs. Gradually I've learned. In this case the new tools are a big help because they go beyond just making an edge. They make space. Small spaces that can be expanded, but they're fine enough to get into the pile and make multiple layers of free-standing arches.

Some part of me has learned to handle complexity. Yes, the sculpture is complex, but it looks of a piece. It's balanced. I'm surprised it's still here.

"Why do you suppose it's still standing?"
"Pixie dust. The sculpture stands as long as it's there." I don't really know, so you might as well call it magic. "It's like the magic smoke in electronic components; once you let the smoke out the gadget works no longer."

Surf crashes against the breakwater. The lifeguard drives down for the umpteenth time to tell people to come down before they're knocked down. Sheets of water reach higher on the gently curving sand, coming within ten feet or so. That means I built too high, carried water too far.

The CD playing in my mind is Renaissance, "Captive Heart." Voice so practiced that the song flows and she adds little trills here and there. It has certainly captured me. I listen to the song and wish I could crawl inside it. What a wondrous world there must be inside a lovely song. I'd like to make the sculptural equivalent of a song. Sometimes I talk about a particular sculpture singing, or ringing like a bell, but these events have become rare. Maybe I know too much now, plan too much, with no room for happy melodious accidents.

There's more to Renaissance than Annie Haslam's clean voice. Not all of their songs work but the ones that do combine elements that would be interesting alone into one whole piece with sublime skill. I don't know how they do it. A sculpture is made of several elements and the more there are the more difficult it is to make all the parts contribute. One ugly bit can overpower its more beautiful neighbors, and the combination might be even worse. There are many ways to fail.

Today there is power in me. I just keep going. If a part doesn't look right I change it, fit it, work on it until the shape is good. I'm helped by the year's best pile of sand, achieved despite more problems with the form. The slipsheet leaked--very bad quality tarp--and then just came unstuck. That latter is the first failure I've had with MS Polymer; it doesn't like the tarp material.

Balance comes from elements that go with each other. The size, the scale, the shape, the contrast. Space and sand, light and shadow, these four simple ingredients in every sculpture. A sculpture with this many parts can't be modelled in my mind but somehow it's going together.

4. Dancing with Sand

Maybe it's the music. Maybe it's the two months since the last formed sculpture. The new tools certainly have a role in this particular dance.

Sculptures come and go. Some are memorable, others are just main-sequence types that go into building skills. In 1996 the state of the art was "Dance," and it's still one of the most beautiful, simply beautiful, sculptures I've ever made. Simple, yes, but graceful as it flung its limbs of sand upward.

Simplicity is good. Complexity is fun and challenging. Guess which way I go most of the time. Now the two are coming together: a complex sculpture that looks simpler than it really is.

It was intended to be much simpler, with two or three internal thin ribs from one side to the other, inside a braided dome. The braid idea took over and the surface became more complex, but I still had room to carve the internal ribs, using the new small hooktail tools. I could have done more but I've learned. No more carving parts just because I can. They have to fit.

And finally I get the signature sand out of its bucket, make a pad, and press my outspread hands into it. Eleven hours. I roll over onto my back.
"Take him home and put him away. He's done."
"Portrait of the Artist as Finished." Rich gets his photograph.
I think about moving. Nah. Too much trouble.

5. Fade to Black

My captive heart has been released. The sculpture is finished. Well, not really; there's always more to do but I'd just be making mistakes. Call it finished.

I get my completion photos. This is more difficult than expected, pain attending every movement. Finally I just drag myself around without standing up. Until a leg cramps, and then I have to stand. OK. Either standing or sitting. Choose one. I finish the photography and then sit down on the sand because my back just won't take any more.

"You have a lot more light left."
"I know. I'd love to wait for the sun. See, as it sets, it'll get into that slot and light up those lower spaces." The ones that turned into a four-way surprise; I thought I was connecting two holes on the east, but wound up breaking through to the south and west also. So I made this look like part of the design, but it still needs light.

Well, the light will be there but I won't. "Yah, I'd love to wait, but I'm done." Home. Food. Shower. Bed.

Rich and I haul my kit away. I'm absolutely thrashed but my mind is still going full-tilt. What's left of it anyway. It was a good piece.

6. Further Considerations of the Fallibility of Sculptors

I was afraid that 03M-6, the "Goldsworthy Piece," was the state of the art. It received more positive responses than most of my sculptures, and to me popularity is the death knell. Especially when it wasn't really mine.

Ah, don't be so morbid. Of course it was yours. No one else on the planet has done anything like that in sand. So you borrowed the idea; other artists do this regularly.

No, the real problem is that my reaction to that piece almost put the fire out. If that was the state of the art, then what of the sculptures whose making I enjoy more, the complex ones, the unplanned ones, the surprises? I just didn't know what I should think about it.

Thus the plan to sit out the summer, making free piles in the morning. The dark cloud from 03F-6 covered those as well, aided by sand full of shells that made fine work impossible. Nothing I did was any good. Well, the desire came back, if only in the form of wanting to carve fine smooth sand.

Sunday morning. I have something like a brain, but it's no fireball. I open the door into the new dawn and am greeted with the clatter of the tool Larry borrowed hitting the floor. Hmmm. If he did a sculpture, I thought he'd call. If he was out here and didn't do a sculpture, that would be unusual. Well, I'll just walk down there and find out.

The evidence is inconclusive: some of the cache still there, no extra sand on the stump of my sculpture, but no sign of anything he might have made. A mystery my befogged brain is unable to decode. I walk back home, skipping rocks and trying to go fairly straight.

"Well, how are you, Lump? This is Uncle Larry."
As if he needed to tell me; his voice is unique. "Good morning. What's going on?"
"Yesterday's sculpture was mixed."
"I walked down there. Nothing left. What did you do?"
"A fairly short sculpture. It never quite came together, and I also didn't finish. I got a late start."

His voice sounds dejected. "You must not have been very pleased with it."
"Not really. I wanted something, but it didn't happen. What do you do when you don't quite feel like going to the beach, but think you should?"
"I just go. Even if there's not much of a plan. As other sand sculptors have said, 'A bad day on the beach is better than a good day anywhere else,' and that's pretty much the way I feel."
"How many of your sculptures disappoint you? I've only done two or three this year that I'm pleased with."
"Most of them. I'd say maybe one in twenty really work out and make me proud. The rest just sort of contribute to my skills. Practice, but it doesn't feel that way. I like the process. I know that's different from you; you're interested in the result."

What lights your fire? What keeps it burning? I don't really know, and it's something I don't examine too closely, fearing to put it out. Sand sculpture is an all-in-one, do it now, full honk into unknown territory. Do your best, put everything out there, design and engineering on the instant. A chance to be creative, a chance to do one thing that's off the ballistic trajectory established at my birth and continues in my participation in the day-to-day world. Magic. I get to touch magic along with the sand. Who can explain it? All I know is that I need it. And I wonder how to communicate that to Larry. He has the idea, the technology, but where's the fire? Has he uncovered it? Does he know how to feed his fire? He knows how I feed mine; his is most certainly different. The lesson is a meta-lesson: not so much how to do sand sculpture but beyond that to how to find the fire and feed it. Everyone should have the chance to do so, I think.

7. Questions

"As I read the report," Maurice says (I'd forgotten I sent it to him), "the main thing that came through was how much work making a sculpture is. You write about moving the sand and packing it."
At this my thought is that I've changed the style of the reports. I used to go into some detail about how the sculpture was carved, what ideas were behind the elements, but I've stopped doing that because it seemed empty.
"And you go on about some of the design and the struggles you're having with that. It feels like work to me. Work to pack, work to design."
Further thought shows me that the direction he's taking is different from what I at first thought, and it's very close to the way some of my own thinking has been running.

What happened to the joy? The magic of making?

"I was just wondering if perhaps you need to change media for a time. Maybe the form is limiting you. The free-pile sculptures you've sent me in pictures look wilder, more fun, looser."
"Compromises. Free-pile is just that, but it's hard to get any detail with the shells. Formed sculptures are an aesthetic delight to carve, the sand feels good, but I'm stuck with the shape of the form."
"Maybe you need to do switch. Chalk, or something else. I remember the effect our early chalk drawing had on your sculpture."
"And still does. There was some of that in Friday's piece. I was really sorry when it got too hot so fast the last time I was up there."
"So was I. I'm not taking the engineer test this year, so the fall will have some open weekends."

Now, when two different people raise similar questions, and both raise strong resonances within me, maybe it's time to take it seriously. But that's the problem: too much seriousness.

"By the time you've spent all that time on making that block of sand, you're tired. You don't want the whole thing to come down. Maybe that's limiting you. Keeping you from expressing what you want to."

If I knew what I wanted to express. In all of my increased skills and improved tools, the sculptures' source is still a mystery. What is it I want to express?

I've always just left that to the sculpture. I just make 'em, ma'am, and don't ask me what's in it. There used to be more of an echo in the sculpture, echoes of what I was feeling, thinking about, or things floating around in my mind.

"I've become more dedicated to design, over the last few years." Yah, maybe too serious.
"Too much, perhaps? I hope I haven't asked any questions that went too far."

Actually, the notion of self-expression is foreign to me. It wasn't allowed when I was a child--children should be neither seen nor heard--and nothing has really changed since then although I've found ways around the prohibition. Mainly this involves not thinking about it, and that's one skill I've honed and buffed until it works so smoothly I don't even notice it. Go to the beach, make a pile, carve it. Leap across that abyss of feeling, of expression, somehow the skill zips through the gap without pausing and makes a sculpture.

And the sculpture usually, these days anyway, disappoints me. The one thing I feel. This is safe: the sculpture doesn't come close to the the mythical one that guides my hand; it's as if I were trying to touch some grail through mists of time or space. I can feel something of the outline, get hints, but it always shatters on being exposed to the air of my real world. As my skills have improved my disappointment has grown: I should be able to do this.

Well, maybe you need to recycle the count. Maybe you really need to figure out what you're doing out there, or feel it. I've certainly felt the lack of feeling lately. But life is surprisingly easy to live without feelings. Like a tunnel through the unregarded days I go to work, come home, back and forth. Wonder could hit me in the face and I'd never notice in my insensitive fog.

I'm just not very good at marathons. Sprint, yes, I can do that. But long-term life, that's different. Thirteen years until retirement. Will there be enough left of me then to make a relight possible?

Written 2003 August 2, 3
Part 6 added August 4 (rough)
Part 7 added August 5 (even rougher)

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