April 15 & 16: 03M-7 "Islands"

Be sure to read the report that comes after the images. It'll give you background on where this piece came from, and some hints as to what's coming.

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What Need Has a Dragon for a Tiger Suit?

The camera cares not. It sees time and space, but only the surface and its movement. Merciless, stupid, literal. You're a shrinking violet? The camera will wilt you on screen. You're a character, dressed for the occasion to attract attention? The camera will make of you a buffoon, a caricature.

Give it no choice. Reflect only the most fierce photons to its medusa gaze, defending yourself with carefully chosen light. It's the most delicate of shields.

I'd recently read a book about how Scottish people turned up in many key places in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book ranges widely, talking about the Highland Clearances and how the Scots relate to their kilts. I got to wondering about the kilt's history--it seems such an odd garment, with lots of hassle and little protection--so asked my sister Lise. She's a bagpiper.

"You know, if you wanted to get a kilt, you should look at a Utilikilt, www.utilikilts.com. They're of canvas or other cotton, and have pockets, depending on which style you get. [. . .] Kilts seem to be coming into their own. There's a company here called Carpenters in Kilts that I see around town every now and again."

Now, up until this I had never thought about wanting a kilt. 10 yards of wool? Hot? I've heard enough of her stories. Where do my legs go? Besides, what's the point? Shorts are good enough: lightweight, convenient, reasonably comfortable. I visited the Web site anyway. Curiosity, you know. The site has enough attitude for any ten normal sites but beyond that it had something else. A resonance. Frustrated bureaucrat finds a real Tiger Suit, perhaps?

The next day I realize I have found an answer I didn't know how to ask for. Choke Cyclops with a bite so big he can't swallow and turn into Good Television. Slap him in the face. Having no mirror I use my digital camera for a self-portrait screen test. Yes, it will work. Cyclops can't see beyond the surface, but if that surface is designed powerfully to lie in accordance with what's underneath you end up with a form of truth. Otto sells me a kilt. Perhaps he even has a hint of what's happening; it's probably not the first time someone has taken a hard left turn into a new way of presenting themselves.

"Well, Rich, it's a go. Piling Tuesday and carving Wednesday. I'm going to wear a kilt."
"Yah, I read your message. Seems like too much a thumb in the eye of the television folks, but you disagree."
"Normally I'd be with you." I think to myself. A skirt? Something about this has grabbed me and is rapidly making for the north border and I don't feel like fighting to maintain my usual style-denying modus operandi.

Build number: 03M-7 (lifetime start #272); 3 units with earthworks
Title: "The Archipelago of Magic"
Date: April 15 (packing), 16 (carving)
Location: Venice Beach, south of the pier, using imported sand
Start: 1230 (Tuesday), 1000 (Wednesday), construction time 13 hours aggregate
Unit A: 41 inches tall, 21 inches nominal diameter, immersion screened native sand (Latchform), on 10 inch raised base
Unit B: 29 inches tall, 19 inches nominal diameter, immersion screened native sand (Short Form)
Unit C: 45 inches tall, 21 inches nominal diameter, immersion screened native sand (Tall Form), in depression
Plan: Rounded islands in a grouping connected by ridges. Unit A on large, slanting surface. Unit B on small teardrop-shaped island. Unit C in channel between A's island and another to the west.
Helpers: Production Assistants provided by Gay Rosenthal Productions
Digital Images: 93, with Canon Powershot G2 (includes other sculptures, process and complete)
Photo 35mm: none
Photo 6X7: none
Photo volunteer: Rich, w/Canon Z115 and Powershot G2
Video motion: none
Video still: none
Video volunteer: none
New Equipment: none
Visitors: Rich, Jeff van Hoosier, Curtis

1. The Pitch

Calls lead to jobs at a ratio of about 14 to one. Producers think a sand sculpture will add sparkle to the show and they search the Internet. They're based in Santa Monica and they find me. I'm close. They call. They want a building or something, so I send them to another sculptor.

Over the years I've tried to sell my works. I tell the producer that my sculptures are very well received by the beachgoing audience. No sale. They know what they want, just as a train knows exactly where it's going.

"Hi, Larry. I'm Sarah, with Gay Rosenthal Productions. We're pitching a show to Bravo featuring sand sculpture, and we'd like to know if you'd be interested. Please call me back."

"Gay Rosenthal, Sarah speaking."
"Hi, Sarah. I'm Larry Nelson, the sand sculptor, returning your phone call."
"Oh, hi, Larry! Thank you for calling me back."

The voice under the words says a lot. I'm being businesslike, interested but refusing to beg for TV time. She sounds honestly enthusiastic.

"Larry, here's the deal. We're doing a pilot called 'But Is It Art?' that will feature chainsaw carving, junk sculpture and sand sculpture. We were wondering if you'd be interested in participating in the sand sculpture part."
I'm always interested in sand sculpture. "Yes. I'd be interested, but you probably need to see some of my work." This is the usual deal breaker. "You can visit my Web site and see the kind of sculpture I do."
"All right! We'll do that, and get back to you after we've done some more research."
Fat chance. I go on my way, back and forth to work.

"Larry, this is Sarah. We've looked at your Web site, and we love your work. We'd really like to have you on the show."
"Thank you. Whether I can be there depends on your timing. When do you want to tape this?"
"It's looking like April 15 and 16."
I look in the tide book. "Middle of the week. I'd have to take the time off from work, which, with all the war excitement, might be difficult. Does this pay anything?"
"We realize it's short notice, and we'll need to compensate you somehow. We're not sure yet how that'll work out." She sounds as if she will get things done. Confident.
"I'll talk with my boss and find out how difficult it'll be to get the time off."
"Now, who else do you know who does sand sculpture in this area?"
"There's Larry Safady, in Garden Grove. Todd van der Pluym is somewhere around here, and Cathy Colvin in Escondido. If you want to go farther away, Sandy Feet in Texas is about the best I know of. Very creative."

After that, our conversations become interesting. She's actually asking about what a sand sculptor needs in order to do good work. Sand characteristics, water needs, time and tools. She listens.

"This is shaping up, Larry. We'd like to come out and interview you at your house. This is preliminary, something we'll show to the network so they can choose the sculptors."
"Oh, so the choice isn't yours?"
"We're narrowing it down to five or six, and letting the network choose the three from that."
Three? What's going on here? But I'm too busy, too distracted to ask. "When would you like to do this?"
"Um, OK. I'll be home from work about 5 o'clock, assuming the bus is on time."
"Great. I'll be there then."

2. The Tiger Suit

People had been telling me for years that I needed to get my sculptures on video. Do a documentary. Expense and lack of a good reason kept me from doing this, but over the years I began to think that the making of a sand sculpture would be a good story.

Japanese Public Television thought so too. We met on the beach in March of 1998 and I managed to get a sculpture off even with their meddling and time wasting. My schedule was even tighter than theirs, but they didn't appreciate that and we spent a lot of time rehearsing moves that didn't matter.

I was completely naive. Cyclops stared and I did my economical best, saying nothing, remaining dedicated to my task and ignoring everything else. This shows in the tape: there's a sculpture, and a sculptor, but nothing much else going on. It's obvious to me, of course, but the veiwer is left to figure things out on her own. Unless she understands Japanese.

A passerby came up with a camera while I was doing a test piece for the Japanese production folks and asked if he could do a short documentary. We got this together later in the year and I used what I'd learned. Do something. Meet old Cyclops bare eye to eye and hold his attention. Explain. Not all actions are self-evident; the watcher has no history to use in the interpretation of what they're watching. As Kalle taped, I demonstrated. The resulting tape is very good; Kalle's economical editing made the best of my demonstration, and in eight minutes we show the viewer what it takes to make sand sculpture. And I discovered that it's just another way of teaching, which I've always enjoyed.

The way is knife-edge narrow, carrying integrity between extremes. To be forthright on TV calls for delicate overplaying. Foremost is not apologizing for anything. Sand sculpture is easy to play for laughs--it always falls over--but it is my life, my creativity. So I have to show that importance and make the camera respect me. No apology, but also no overimportance. A narrow road. My mother has left some roadmarks and it's time for me to use what I've observed. Tasteful flamboyance.

"Hi, Larry. I'm James, working on the Bravo project."
"Sarah mentioned you."
"Yes. She couldn't make it today, so I'm doing the interview. I'm on the 10 freeway near the 405, so I'll be there in a few minutes."
"That'll be fine."

I just want to be left alone to do what I want to do. Fame gives, fame takes away, and the real work gets lost. There is, however, a good story to tell. Why shouldn't others know about it? The tension builds. The dragon is tired, very tired, of self-imposed invisibility.

James drives up. I'm in the garage working on equipment, and turn to look as he gets out of his car.
"Hi. You must be James."
"Yes. Larry?"

I focus full power on the task at hand. He describes what he wants to do as he sets up the camera.
"I'm not really a camera guy. I'd like to do more, but just haven't gotten the time to do it."
It shows. His camera is good, but set up in some odd way we can't figure out. This is why I bought an XL1: every button is labeled, and each does just one thing. I understand it. We use my camera, tripod and zoom controller. James likes this outfit.
"I want to get more camera time."

Take the question and run. Face the camera. No shyness, no cuteness. Be there now. There's steam behind the words. Let it show. The tale is practiced, but never have I told it so well or so powerfully. The dragon shreds that bureaucratic exterior and just plain breathes fire. I understand what gets into performers, why they keep going back to the stage. There's nothing else like it. It helps that James is a good interviewer, asking the question and waiting for the answer with an expectant look. Dragon pressure, camera vacuum and the words come out flaming.

We run out of light. James packs up.
"Thank you, Larry. There's good stuff here."
"You're welcome. I hope it comes out well." He drives away and I collapse. The dragon really gets the job done but, yeow, what a cost. When you don't know how much is enough it's better to give them everything. One chance. Unload. No matter the expense.

3. The Set-up

"Wayne, it looks like the Bravo Network wants me to do a sand sculpture. It'll be Tuesday and Wednesday."
Bob looks up. He's been very protective of vacation time. "Television? Well, I guess..."
"I'm not sure yet. They're supposed to let me know if they decide to use me."

"Hi, Larry. This is Sarah. How are you?"
"All right. I was wondering if I was going to hear from you again. Has the network decided?"
"Oh, yes. They love your work; the Web site is amazing. Yes, they want you. We do too. Everyone in the office here just loves your sculptures."
"Great. My boss will let me have the time. Is it still set for the middle of the week?"
"What's the location?"
"We want to do this at the Venice Pier."
A hand clutches my stomach. Bad news. "Yeow. The sand down there is terrible. You can't do this at the Breakwater?"
"We're going to have three crews, and need to keep them together. The Pier parking lot works for that."
"Well, I don't know what your other sculptors have said, but I can't work with that Pier sand. The last time I tried the sculpture was only a foot tall."
"I'll talk to the producers and see what we can do. We really want you on the show."
"I'm going to have James drop off a package of papers for you to sign; we call it the doorstop. Just sign them and put them back on your doorstep."
"Don't worry. It's just standard stuff."

Promise this, sign away rights, indemnify them against any conceivable problem. Fine by me. Just get some decent sand, please. But when the schedule comes in, it gives the location as the Venice Pier.

"Don't worry, Larry. We're going to bring in sand for you."
"All right. I'll be there."

"Larry, this is Steve calling. You have a package here."
Monday. Tomorrow is the day. I walk down to Steve's lab after work and pick up the package from Utilikilts. Do I really have the courage to wear this thing? Don't think about it. It's inevitable.

4. The Zandraak Speaks

"Lise, I'm going to be wearing a kilt on national TV, and it's your fault, so you'd better tell me what to do."
She writes back. "I'm proud to have been your introduction to kilts. Now, you need to be careful. I'd recommend you wear shorts under it. And be prepared for The Question."

I pull the kilt out of the package. It's well made and fits perfectly. The Web site's fitting instructions were right on. With some trepidation I walk down to busy Lincoln Boulevard and show it to Steve.
"Looks nice."
"Thanks, Steve. Now I just wonder how the producers will take it; they've never seen me in anything like this." Nor have I. There's no mirror in the house so the only way to see myself is to shoot a photo with the digital camera and then transfer the image to my computer. You know, that actually looks good. Lise concurs, after receiving the Emailed test image. "You look like you've been wearing a kilt all your life."

Don't give the producers a choice. Tuesday morning I gather my equipment and decide on a three-unit multiple. The theme for the contest--oh, yes, it is a contest, with two other competitors--is "Magic." Loose enough for anything, but I'm thinking of a group of islands.

Then it's time to go. I put on an orange shirt; this will stand out but not be too bright for the camera. The kilt goes on next, over the shirt's tail. I add the belt with the "DEPT. OF TRANS." buckle made from a leftover pullbox label. I was lucky I could find it, and had to rub off the dust with some mink oil. Normally I don't wear belts because of the hassle, but the "neo-traditional" Utilikilt requires a belt to keep it in place. Finally, I add my Tilley hat with its rainbow hatband. The outfit approaches being too much, and that's just right for this. Blame Jamie, the producer. He called me and asked me to bring a few different shirts so they wouldn't have everyone looking alike. I prefer simple solutions.

You can ride a bicycle while wearing a kilt. Even when pulling a trailer loaded with upward of 100 pounds of sand sculpture gear.

"Excuse me, sir. Could you please ride around? We're shooting here."
I know I'm in the right place. They have a stack of tiki torches in a box.
"I know. I'm one of the sand sculptors."
"Oh, I'm sorry!"
"No problem. Where are we going to do the sand sculpture?"
"I'm not sure. Let me ask."
Then I see it. A big scoop of sand dumped on the beach just outside the parking lot's wooden boundary. I hope they got some decent stuff.

A woman walks over. How do you tell one person with a clipboard from another? I guess the voice gave me a good enough idea. Her walk is springy, lively, and her face attentive. Red hair flows from underneath a hat.
"Hi, Sarah."
"Yes." She doesn't bat an eye.
"We're not quite ready for you yet; we'll be starting the chainsaw carving in just a few minutes. Park your bike and relax for a bit. You rode with that all the way from Santa Monica?"
She makes it sound as if I came in from San Francisco. "It's a nice ride, along the beach."
"Go and get yourself a snack. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Well, that was remarkably smooth. You'd think these people all wear kilts for the lack of notice. Then I realize I'm in Venice.

5. Sonata for Chainsaw and Pounder

"Larry, this is Maya."
"Hi, Maya." We shake hands. She's slender, wearing a cowboy hat over blond hair that blows in the cool wind.
"And Greg, who'll also be doing sand sculpture."
"Hi, Greg." He's tall and relaxed. Maya is dressed in black. Greg has a white T-shirt on. For a regular contest I'd be overdressed, but the camera sees differently. No matter. We'll soon be to the task, and clothing won't matter.

"Cameras rolling? 3, 2, " and a horn sounds. The carvers pull their chainsaws to life but the director doesn't like it. They shut down and do it again. This time all three saws come to life in simultaneous cacaphony and they set to their projects. Redwood logs stand on end by each carver. Soon sawdust fills the air. The good news is that three chainsaws seem only twice as loud as one. The better news is that I have earplugs which reduce the clamor to something tolerable. I shout to Maya and Greg "I like sand sculpture. It's quiet." I don't know if they can hear me.

In my conversations with Sarah we discussed what it takes to make a good sand sculpture.
"The key component is time. Most contests don't allow enough time, so they don't get people's best work."
"All right. We'll plan for that."
We ended up getting two days. Today we'll pack the sand, for which we have five hours. Tomorrow will come the carving, and this is why I'm here. Two days. I can do a multiple the way it should be done! Accordingly, I've brought my tall sailcloth form, the plastic Latchform, and the Short Form. They'll stand overnight and be peeled off in succession for carving.

Maya has huge wooden forms. "Sarah, where can I unload?"
"Drive around the back, and go over to the far end."
"OK." She goes to get her car while I slowly ride my bike over to the designated spot and start unloading.

The sculpture plots are defined by tiki torches.
"Have you chosen spots for us, Sarah?"
"Let me check. I think you can just choose a spot." I start to set up by the southernmost because it's close to the heap of imported sand.
Sarah comes back. "Larry, can you take the end spot?"
"Fine by me." I'm on a roll. Actually, I've been feeling a rising tide of confidence. This is beyond reason; the others are professionals. I still can't deny the feeling. The dragon is ready. I set up my table and prepare the forms. Then I head for the beach to get a load of seawater.

I amble along with the orange-wheeled wooden cart, streaks of rust running down from its screws. Sun warms my back while the wind from the sea salts my glasses.
"That's a Utilikilt, right?"
"Yes. How'd you know?" He's walking along the sand with a friend.
"They used to sell them on the Boardwalk. I thought about buying one."
I hand him a card. "You should. It's a nice product." He walks on, and I get my water and haul it back to the worksite. I'm ready.

They turn us loose with no ceremony. Packing sand isn't glamorous in any way. It's just work. Maya and her husband assemble their first form and carry it over to the building site next to mine. Greg sets up his lightweight pool plastic forms at the north end.

My first step is base contouring, drawing lines in the sand and shoveling out the hollows I need for separation. I have five hours to get this right. I build a long slanting surface for the first pile, which is intended as the centerpiece. This sculpture, unlike most of mine, will have to have a "front" because the parking lot is where all the production people are. I design the sculpture accordingly, with a gradual downward slope to the parking lot. East of the first pile I build a smaller island for the short form. In the back, south of the first form, I dig a hollow for the third sculpture, down to a hard-packed layer. Strange. I wonder what that is. It at least provides a solid foundation.

By this time Greg has filled his first course. Amazing. I don't know how he moved all that sand so quickly. Maya has three or four production assistants flinging sand into that big box as she tamps. They don't use much water.

I have one PA. We soon get a system going: he loads sand from the heap into the Quick Filter. I pick it up and unload it, then toss it back. This sounds like a small thing but it saves much time and energy. Every step saved is valuable; the energy can be used for something else and I'm sure I'll need it.

My plan to use seawater for all the packing comes apart because it's just too far away. I'll use fresh for packing and then have the security guard wet the piles with seawater, which should saturate them and get enough sticky seawater in there. I hope. My worst failures have been while using fresh water.

Wood flies next door. A giraffe emerges from one log. Another looks to me like some sort of jewel on a stem, with something else going on near the base. The third is the standard eagle and pine tree.

Silence. "Lunch. Larry, do you want some lunch?"
"Is it required?"
"No, but we thought you'd want to take a break."
"Let me get this part finished." Sarah walks away. I take my earplugs out and can once again hear the wash of waves against the sand, my normal accompaniment. Then I decide to get some free food; I'm not really hungry, having stoked the fire before I came down here. I expect a bag of chips and a soda.

"What would you like? Eggplant parmesan? Roast beef? Grilled vegetables? Rosemary chicken?"
"Yes." It is all very good.
"Be sure to get one of the cookies, Larry," Maya says. "They're very good."
I do so, and then talk to the caterer.
"Thank you. This is great stuff!"
"My wife and I try hard."
"You succeeded today. I appreciate it."
"Thank you."

After lunch I have a new PA. He's stronger than I and loads the filter.
"Can you give me about half that, please? I'm not all that strong." I manage to get it over the top of the Tall Form and it drops with a thud. Empty again, I toss it back and he fills it.
"How's this?"
"Much better. Thanks."

Then I notice another problem. Water can't drain through that hard-packed sand under the form, so it's flowing out under the form's edge. It has to go someplace. The problem is that the water carries sand with it, sand that's supposed to stay within the form. When that sand comes out the rest becomes looser, defeating my efforts at packing. I fill in around the form with sand and pack it with my foot but it soon becomes loose and saturated. I almost knock it over and start over with a pad underneath to provide drainage but decide to just keep going and depend on the banked sand to keep the rest in the form.

"Give me two more loads and then you're done."
We have an hour left. He gives me two more loads and that's good for the third pile.
"Thank you for your help. I appreciate it."
"No problem. You're welcome. At least you said 'Thank You.' The others have just treated us as machines."
"I usually work alone. I always appreciate help."

I spend the rest of the time working more on the base. The plot is 15 feet square and I bring the earthworks in long curves right out to the tiki torch boundary and think about details. In a multiple the key is to tie the sculptures together somehow. Previous experiments have largely failed, partly because of lack of vision, partly due to lack of time to work it out. This time I want to do better. The problem is that there are so many ways to do it better. Choose one.

"Larry, you're making three sculptures for us?"
"Yes. You gave me the time for this."
"Wow. Wait until I tell the director we'll have three of your sculptures. He'll be excited." Her excitement is infectious.

"She's like Bert, Rich. Has enough enthusiasm for three people."
"I think she'd have to have that to stay in the job."

"All right, folks. Time's up."
I'm content with what I've gotten done. I gather my kit, go to the ocean to get a load of water for overnight use, and get ready to leave.
"You can stay for the chainsaw judging if you'd like, but we won't need you until tomorrow."
"Thanks, Sarah."
"I'm cold. I'm just going to head on home, Larry."
"OK, Rich. Thanks for coming out."
"I should be back tomorrow, but I don't know what time."
"We'll be here until at least 1730."
"I won't be that late."

I amble over to the chainsaw area. The saws are silent. The carvers are adding finishing touches. The giraffe sculpture is head and shoulders above the rest, with better craftsmanship and design. It's simple, elegant, beautiful. The carver has added detail by sawing shallow grooves and then using a torch to darken the patches left behind to form the giraffe's reticulation. Ingenious. The last step is a light coat of linseed oil and then the horn blows. Three times so the director can get the best shot.
"One more time, please."

Cold and nearly shivering from standing around, I decide not to wait for the judging.
"Be sure to leave your clothes outside your door so we can pick them up and clean them. We want consistency for tomorrow."
"OK." I ride away north. The trip seems long, even without the heavy trailer. My mind is filled with designs for the sculpture, and overlaid with worry about the piles. Will they actually be here in the morning? Fortunately I'm too tired for the worry to have much power. Go home, eat something, take a shower, go to bed. Ah, warmth.

6. Hidden Dragon, Walking Tiger

Now is the time. Reach into that other world. Pull an idea out, or two, then fit them into the pile of sand while keeping it within the strength available. It's time to deliver.

I ride south in a cold morning. A steady breeze comes from the east and brings the city's cold breath over the beach. Overhead the sky is blue. Everything looks ordinary but the day is special. Magic is in the air.

First, there's an interview. This one is more formal, done by Jamie, the producer. The dragon speaks, yes, but he has other things on his mind and this interview doesn't go so well. Jamie seems even more distracted than I and less inviting than James was, and I wilt just a bit under the weight of the camera's unattended gaze. Why bother with words when I will soon say the same thing much more clearly in sand?

Now it's Maya's turn. Her interview goes on much longer than mine did. Either she's telling them a better story, or I missed a chance. If you want me to talk, keep me away from the sand.

Finally, half an hour later than planned, we are placed on our green circle marks, ready for the horn. Greg has a three-course stack of pool plastic forms and I've now learned how he filled them so fast: he has a very strong friend with him. Maya faces her large box forms, a stack of three with two bucket forms on top, and I have my three tiny columns. Maya and I got done with packing at about the same time but she packed about five times as much sand. Greg was finished long before us and relaxing on the set while we pounded.

Now the horn sounds and we all run to our sand. We have eight hours.

I start with Unit C, the tall form with the suspect base. If it's going to fall over I want it out of the way. The form rustles and pops as I remove it but the sand stays put. As soon as I can I taper it so as to reduce the load on the base, and in doing that I discover that it's generally soft. My original plan for this piece, two thin slabs flanking a taller triangular prism, with lines of small holes and ribs, goes out the window. I can't make anything thin with this. Another problem is that the lower part is still very wet. Carve carefully.

I start with shortening the eastern part so that the top projects above a level set-back. The taller part starts a line that continues down the south side, twisting and becoming wider as it approaches the bottom. I hollow out on the west side of this and then drill some small holes.

Unit C is intended mainly as support and contrast for Unit A, the centerpiece. As such it can remain relatively solid-looking. I lighten it with holes through the top and a three-way junction inside, with one space farther down just to show I can do it.

Relieved that the sculpture has stayed put, I give it a good spraying with seawater and turn to Unit A. This is to be the focal point. the showoff piece. I open the latches and the form pops off. Neat. I drag the form away and start carving.

This is a much better pile. Well drained, consistently packed, it should hold the open three-leg design I intend for it. I taper it gently and smooth the sides. The camera on the long black boom comes in for a close look so I make a show of getting the curve just the way I want.

Maya gives a soft curse. I look over and see that the top part of her sculpture has collapsed. I'm surprised, thinking it was solid. Later she tells me that she'd tunnelled through and undercut the other side.
"Do you want to borrow my short form to rebuild? I can take it off my column."
"No. We'll just go with volcano style."

I return to work, and then hear a heavy truck. This ought to be worth watching. The driver rolls back the debris cover, revealing a full load of, well, junk. Later I asked about this.
"How'd you choose the junk?"
"We went to the junkyard. Pointed to stuff and said give us a scoop of that, two scoops of that, and some of this."
The director places the truck. The cameras come in.
"Everybody rolling? OK!"
The truck revs up and the body tilts. The stuff doesn't move. It goes higher. Suddenly there's a great clangor as everything falls at once, every little kid's dream, making a huge mess in the parking lot. A few minutes later the assembly sculptors are posed on their green circles and the horn sounds. They head for the pile.
"Hold it! One more time, please."
The rehearsed quick start loses its spark. They've avoided all of that with us in the sand, which I appreciate.

My three legs are well formed. They taper inward toward the bottom, and in the flats between legs I dig holes. Tall holes that will go all the way to a triangular skylight in the sculpture's top. After that I will carve detailed openings in each leg. The verticality should keep each leg in place and I don't anticipate problems. It's a good pile within the limits of the sand. I work my way around, starting the various cuts I'll refine later.

I'm ready to carve the small holes in the western panel when I see the crack. At the top of the southwest opening, and it goes all the way through. There are always at least two, but a quick search fails to find the other one. Time presses. I can't afford to replace this pile, so I get some damp sand and carefully build up a buttress against the leg I suspect is leaning outward. The crack widens slightly and I finally spot the second one, at the tip of the crescent hole in the east panel. Something isn't right about this but I'm too focused on the carving task to give failure analysis the attention it wants. When the buttress is finished the cracks haven't widened any more. I spray it thoroughly, then carve some sand away from the west side to reduce its push on the top. I hope it stays. Another worry. Unit C's soft base, and now this one's crack. It can no longer be the centerpiece. Oh, man, what do I do now?

"Lunch, folks."
Suddenly I realize I'm hungry. When the going gets tough, the tough go to lunch.
"Today we have salmon."
"I'd like some of everything."
The salad tends to become airborne in the strong onshore wind. I sit with Maya and Greg and we talk of sculptures past.
"I don't know how Larry is going to finish," Maya says. "He's spent more time talking than sculpting."
"Well, friends come by to look. This is my home beach, after all."
"I lost the top of my castle," Greg says.
"That curl fell over on mine. I guess I undercut it too much. Now only Larry hasn't had a failure."
Thanks, folks. Just what I wanted. More Murphy bait. I don't tell them that my sculptures are hanging on by threads and seawater. I snag an extra apple cake bar and head back to the sculpture site. Units A and C are still standing. I spray them and then peel Unit B.

This was intended as a simple foreground piece to draw people into the sculpture. That plan is out the window because Unit A can't do its job; now, the rear sculptures will form a backdrop for this one, and it needs to be more spectacular. Pull out those stops. Make it loud.

A camera man follows every move as I carve this piece into a graceful dome. These people have been very well behaved, instinctively staying out of my way as I move around. There are three big Betacams, one of which is on a very long jib. In addition to the two mobile Betas there are four or five people with MiniDV camcorders. This format is nearly as good as the professional ones, lacking mainly color depth and high-frequency sharpness. They offer the advantage of great mobility, and this shoot is taking advantage of this.

"Four o'clock," Rich announces.
"So we have about two hours. I'd better hustle."
Time budgeting. Normally I work until there's no more daylight, but here I'm on a schedule. If I don't finish on time I'm disqualified. That's one of the judging criteria, along with technical difficulty and artistic merit. I should have the technical part sewn up if the sculptures hold. I give them a good spraying and keep working on Unit B.

I want it to look smooth, while retaining the braided look. Polish the outside into the graceful dome, then start the holes. Leave enough sand between to show the dome shape but make them thin enough to look impossible. Some of the holes have to be bigger so as to allow removal of interior sand, and these have to work with the overall design. As fatigue comes on it's harder to maintain concentration. I gradually lose sight of everything around me. Just make it. Design it, cut it, polish it.

I dig around in the interior, pressing my various long tools into service. At least the shape is inherently strong. I gradually break through from one hole to another and then widen them. Waste sand builds around the base. It's looking good, more complex than the others, taking on its role as the whole sculpture's focal point. Its frontal position helps in this ad hoc design. The little sculpture has a heavy load on it, and the larger piece is more of a demonstration of three different styles than the coherent whole I wanted. For a contest this might actually work well. Dragons do like to strut their stuff.

"Five o'clock."
"Thanks, Rich." I carve alone but there are several people who've helped support the process. Rich has been the most constant and today he's even more important than usual. A familiar face in the middle of all this confusion. He watches my back and photographs as I work, getting good action photos.
"I'd better close this one out and start the clean-up. I have a lot of work to do on the base earthworks."
This leaves part of the short piece uncarved, but it works as contrast with the many small openings elsewhere. Unfortunately this solid part faces where the sun will be, so the interior is darker than I wanted. Too late now.

Clean-up consists of trimming rough edges with a small tool, smoothing lumps with a hand and then brushing away the loosened sand.
"Are there layers in there?" Kevin, one of the Betacam operators, asks.
"Yes. See what happens when I brush the loose sand away?"
"That's beautiful. How does it happen?"
"The colors are in the sand. As I pile it, the darker grains settle more slowly and form a layer. Each time I add sand."
"Do you do that deliberately?"
"No. It's an artifact of how I make the pile. I do work with it, and take advantage of it to show depth."
He tapes a bit more.
"Kevin! Kevin! Over here, please."
It's another call we've heard often.

"Sand sculptors, ignore the horn you're going to hear. It's for the junk sculptors."
"Roger that." I turn around. They're putting the finishing touches on their creations. How do you know when one of these is finished? From here I can't tell, except for the middle piece. It has turned into a sort of sled with a bug's framework around it, long spindly legs, long neck, big eyes and serrate mandibles. Long antennae wave in the constant, cold onshore wind. The farther piece has a delightful blue helix in it, but not much overall design. The nearer one, over two times taller than its maker, is even more chaotic.

The horn sounds. The sculptors put down their tools and dash for the green circles. The judges come out. There's no time for me to watch, but Rich goes over to investigate; he'd told me earlier that the giraffe did win the chainsaw contest. Justice has been done there.

"One hour, sand people. One hour."
Sand people? But where's my bantha? And as far as I know they don't wear kilts. Quit being silly; you have a sculpture to finish.

"This is beautiful. You have my vote."
"How much would you take to offer a bribe to the judges?"
"How much do you have?"
We laugh. The PAs have helped a lot on this project.

Unit A gets a very careful brushing and trimming. The cracks have been stable for the whole afternoon. If it will just hold up for another hour. I'm more aggressive on Unit C but its base has become even wetter with my undiscriminating application of water to keep the surroundings wet; this has seeped down into the sump around the sculpture. Be more careful; you've been lucky so far.

I rebuild the stepped-on areas of the islands and shape their contours. This is a matter of balancing, making the shape strong enough to work with the sculptures but not so strong that it overwhelms them. The whole area, fifteen feet square, ideally would look like one sculpture. I add a few low ridges between islands and then brush the whole area to randomize the sand.

I have perhaps gone too far toward smoothing out the earthworks. They look as if they could use more definition but there's no time to experiment. Just refine what's there.

"Ten minutes, folks. Ten."
PAs come and set out the famous green circles.

"Five minutes. When you hear the horn, that's it. Step onto your green circle."
"Roger that."
Someone laughs. I scurry around making final adjustments, including a signature pad carefully constructed by Unit B. As they start the countdown I'll press my hands in and then stand up on the nearby circle just as the horn sounds off. That should keep the "Just one more" at bay.

The countdown starts. I press my hands into the pad, hard, and then push myself up. The practice count went perfectly. This time the count, with all the PAs shouting the numbers, goes perfectly but the horn just gives a sort of strangled breathy wheeze. I think Danny, the hostess, is getting cold and tired and can't push the button. We step onto our circles anyway, and the director just has the people repeat the count. This time the horn honks and we're done.

7. The Judgment

I stand upwind, exhausting my sprayer onto the sand. It's a good piece. Not quite what I'd hoped for, but still respectable. Bert had a point some years ago when he fairly gently--for him--pointed out that most professional sand sculptors just carve what sand is available and don't talk about it. I've always been fussy, but in the last year I've had to change my ways. I've gotten jobs and didn't have access to good sand. The paycheck is on the line. Use what's there and carve accordingly. The missing piece came in late last year with some technologic adaptations and now sand is not so much of a problem. I held it together and it looks good. Dreamland, the Archipelago of Magic, a place I'd like to explore. I like it. The PAs like it.

Sarah comes by.
"This is very nice, Larry."
"Do you feel you got your money's worth?"
"Oh, yes. It's great."
"Thank you."
Will the judges like it? Todd has given signs that he has problems with the design, and he is one of the leading commercial carvers of castles and cute animals, but perhaps the other judges will go for it. Two out of three will be good enough. I want to win.

While waiting, Rich and I amble over to the assemblage sculptures. One woman is photographing them, and turns to me.
"I love your sculpture. It's beautiful."
"Thank you. Are you one of the assemblers?"
"Yes." She points. "She's mine."
I look up. "I see now. From where I was working I had no idea of what you were building. She has great hips."
It's a female effigy, sort of. Twelve feet tall, redwood hips, breasts made of a lampshade and a fan shroud, eyes of something or other, and a soda can belly button on a stick. Whimsy, with design. I like it. The bug is good and won the prize, but this one could also have won for me.

I amble over to the restroom. It's nice having one so close, but this time a burly man blocks the entrance as I approach. What's this about? I just keep walking, with no intention of stopping. Get out of the way or get run over. He moves aside.
"Well, are you a girl, or a guy?"
If you can't tell the difference, you need more help than I can offer.

"Sand sculptors, please come to your circles. We're going announce the results."
The green circles are set in a line about twenty feet away from where the judges and hostess have assembled in the shade of a picnic shelter. Rehearsal goes on and then they're rolling. There's a red carpet with a red-covered circular dais set up at its end.

"When they announce the winner, please walk over here to the stage."
"Roger that."
Danny reads her piece. I can't hear anything.
"One more time, please."
Oh, come on. I have goosebumps on my goosebumps, and I want the suspense over with.

Danny looks my way. "It looks like Larry Nelson is our Sultan of Sand!" I hope Rich Varano doesn't find out about this.

I walk toward the red carpet, and then pick up speed. At the carpet I decide to get fancy. Run two steps, leap upward and spin so the kilt will fly, planning to land on my feet facing the camera, having turned in flight. Too much jump, not enough spin. I land sideways, with more momentum than my tired legs can handle, and have to step backward off the dais. Fortunately it's low. I recover and step back up.
"Careful there. How do you feel?" Danny asks.
In answer I simply start leaning against her.
"Tired, are you?"
"And flying."
"Congratulations. It must have been your lucky skirt." She hangs the medallion from my neck and Sarah hands me a bouquet of fragrant flowers.
"Thank you. This is great." The rest just sort of dissolves in fog. Released from all demands, I come apart. I won. Non-representational sculpture carries the day. Wow. Surprising because I'm just not used to looking at my work in any way but utilitarian, but curiously expected. I've been so fired up in that Tiger Suit that I felt no other outcome was possible; inexorably, step by determined step, to the end. Still, I'm curious about one thing. I turn to the judges.
"I have to ask. Was it unanimous?"
They nod their heads. "We all agreed."
Todd adds "But I'm still angry with you."
"Angry about what?"
"The base doesn't do enough."
I'm too foggy to think about this very much. "I see." The set is breaking down. I stumble off the dais and amble back to the sculptures.

I'm just glad I didn't have to judge this event. All three pieces are good. Greg has made a well-defined castle on a mountain of stars, at whose foot is a deep depression with a road winding around behind waterfalls and rocks. Nicely done. Maya has made a fairy maiden lying in a pea pod, with curls and supporting details. Greg shakes my hand.
"Well done."
Maya hugs me. If only for warmth; she's shivering. "Thank you." If there were a goosebump contest right now she'd be Everest to my Aconcagua.

I shoot my completion photos. We have to wait for the producers to finish a wrap-up shot before Rich can get some builder photos. The light is lovely. I clean up my equipment, then look for Sarah.
"Are you finished with us?"
"Yes. You're free. Thanks for coming."
"Thank you for inviting me, and for your help. I had a good time."

I wander around in a daze, gathering my kit. Then the director comes by.
"This is a beautiful piece. I'm amazed you could carve it that way."
"Thank you. You must be exhausted, all that running around the set."
"I get to rest now. I love this piece. Thanks for making it."
"You're welcome. Your group made it enjoyable." I don't mention how glad I am that I didn't have to repeat anything for the cameras. Let well enough alone.
Jamie comes by for a builder-and-producer photo.
"You did a great job."
"Thank you."
"This is beautiful light," the director says.
"If I had any energy, I'd get my camera back out and shoot a few more."

Rich and I walk over to where my trailer has been parked.
"I'll just keep going from here, since you don't need any help getting it across the sand."
"Right. Thanks for coming, Rich. You were busy! There are almost 100 shots on my camera!"
"Yes. I tried to get pictures of the other sculptures, too."
"Well, thanks. I appreciate your help. Good night."
"Fare you well." He walks away through the parking lot.

I turn to walk back and almost run into Todd. Ah. A chance for clarification.
"Todd, tell me again why you're angry with me."
"There's no connection between the sculptures. You should have continued some lines from one sculpture to the others, to bring them into the same piece."
"Ah. Well, I've tried that. The problem is that basal earthworks made that way compete with the sculptures. The base is too distracting."
"I still think you need more connection."
"You may be right. The multiple sculpture is still an experiment." In a way he's right. I'm not satisfied with the base; it's too soft, too amorphous, not contributing much to the overall piece except support. Well, maybe that's the way it should be. I've done better with some of the free-pile multiples, however.

Around me the crew is breaking everything down and stowing it into trucks and cars. They are quite efficient. I follow suit, loading my kit onto the trailer. That's the easy part. The wind is out of the north, cold and solid.

Everything is loaded. I boost myself onto the bicycle and slowly ride away. Thinking about nothing much, I suddenly wonder about my camera. Wait. Something's missing. Oh, yes, backpack, with the camera inside. I make a slow turn, ride back and find it still leaning against the post where I left it.

Low gear is all I can manage, northbound against the cold wind. At least the work warms me. A last intense spear of sunlight dazzles me before it slips down behind the mountains that would be black if not for the glare from salt blown onto my glasses.

8. That's a Wrap

I won. This feels good. Bad sand, two judges who have limited sand sculpture experience and one who is firmly in the commercial camp, and time pressure. I did it. Professional, yes, but also passionate. It's a good mix.

I eat some dinner and then call my sister. Many people have a role in this; hers is the suggestion that got the Sandragon into appropriate clothing.
"Hi. I won!"
"You won? Congratulations! That's great. CJ's here, and I'm showing her the pictures of you in the kilt. She says you look like a natural. So, what did you win?"
"A nice medallion, a bouquet of flowers, and $1500."
"Fifteen hundred dollars? Wow! Now you can afford to come to the deck's 20th anniversary party next year!"
"Yes." Twenty years? I built that deck, and have been in Los Angeles ever since. We talk some more and then I hang up. Time for bed. Work calls in the morning.

Of course I can't sleep. I stagger over to the bus, glad I don't have to drive.
"What's that around your neck?" the other passengers ask.
"I won the contest." I tell them the story as we roll along the freeway to downtown. We keep up on each other's news, the 10-line Social Club.

I have to tell the story repeatedly at work. The response is always the same: "With all that money you can afford to buy us all lunch." Because I work with three different shops, that would just about wipe out the winnings. Will doughnuts do?

What I don't tell anyone is that it was almost like cheating. Everyone was on my side. Positive energy counts for something, and every bit of it that I got from the production folks went into the sculpture. The competition were far from being creampuffs, and they even had two people each to do the carving, but it still felt to me like a walkover. Surfing. Catch that wave and ride it in. One of those days in which I could do no wrong. They're rare, those days, but fun when they come along.

What's even rarer is that I can let myself enjoy being up on this peak. It won't last, of course, but it's fun for now. Sculptures and sculptors fall down. And sometimes, a bit of push, a bit of dragon claw, a good Tiger Suit and they end up in some strange place higher than they thought they could go.


1. Richard and the Dragon

"Utilikiltarian of the Month:
Mr. May is the serenely talented Larry Nelson from Santa Monica, CA. Larry is 51, and a Signal Systems Electrician for the City of Los Angeles...But he's a well known Sculptor as well. Larry is responsible for some of the most beautiful sand creations in the universe."
--Utilikilts Email newsletter, 2003 May 21 [too busy making kilts to be on time]

Yahoo! From not knowing how to spell "kilt" to being their poster boy in two weeks. Must be some sort of record.

Rich and I met at a Sierra Club Camera Committee meeting in 1995. Since then he has become an essential part of the process, variously playing guard, helper and caterer. I'm no longer truly a solo sand sculptor, and thanks to his photographs I have records even of the sculptures that have fallen over.

Thursday after the contest I staggered in to work. I was very nearly useless but at least didn't make any more problems than I solved. I managed to get home without falling over in front of a bus. I decided to do something harmless: look at the images from the contest.

They sparkle. Great action. Rich has outdone himself this time. An idea suddenly peeks out from the fog. Uniqueness helps win contests, and I'll bet there are no kilted sand sculptors on the Utilikilts Web site. Utilikiltarian of the Month, win a free kilt. The walkover feeling returns. Apparently the wave hasn't exhausted itself yet. I send out the builder image and promptly receive an invitation to fill out the interview. I send that back, along with more images that clearly show the kilted sand sculptor in action.

May rolls around. I figure they'll send me formal notice if I win, but why not check the Web site? In a rare quiet moment at work I find myself in front of a computer with Internet access, and go to the site. Hot damn!

Coincidentally, it's my birthday. Otto calls shortly after I discover the images, to talk about my plans for my sister's kilt.
"Do you want us to make hers the free one?"
"Hell, no. I won it. It's mine."
Well, mine and Richard's. Thank you, Rich.

2. One More Time, Please

The producer has an idea. He talks to the director and they go to the various technical people. What can be done? What can't? How do we get an approximation? After much discussion and planning the operator will pick up his camera, point it and finally press the GO button.

Three big cameras, four or five small ones, two days, three events, one uniting idea to be presented in one hour. Whatever the camera sees, it's only one view. Only a very small fraction of the camera operator's work will show up on the screen; it's the editor who has the final say. What of the original idea? A strong producer will hold to it. A weak producer will be held captive by the editor.

Sand sculpture is one man, one day, one idea. I am solely to blame or to credit for how successful the piece is; I don't know how video producers stand it. How much compromise can an idea take before it simply crumbles under the weight of decision makers?

3. The Strong Line of History

John Strong sailed from England to America in March of 1630. This was no luxury liner. The state of the art was three masts, heavy square sails and rope in a ship barely 100 feet long. The passage was measured in months, not days. Only desperation would drive this move from civilization to cold wilderness. Leave. Make a new life. Go where economics favor the industrious and no nosy government tells you what to believe.

373 years later the state of the art has moved. Sails are recreational and an Atlantic crossing is casual. Religious freedom, however, is in just as short supply but there is nowhere else to go. Last stand, for many things, right here, right now.

For those 373 years there have been Strongs, and there has been a rebellious streak in all of them. Move west. Keep going. Don't accept the status quo. Ride the changes and use them.

The last picture in "From There to Here," my mother's expansive genealogic study of my family, shows me with the Bravo sculpture. It's a very small scale rebellion, but still no one does sculpture like this in sand. I invented it, design, technology, tools. Sometimes I get credit for it, but fame is for TV folks. I'm looking elsewhere. Keep searching. Fame is just another way to get tied down.

In the end, the kilt didn't matter. The sculpture spoke. Good enough.

4. Skirting Life

Life is movement. Pants bind the legs. Why did it take 51 years for me to discover a better way?

Partly, the timing is due to unavailability. For some reason there is now a growing interest in men's skirts. There's even a special word in German for this. The Utilikilt was followed by the Amerikilt, the 21st Century Kilt, the Mountain Kilt. There are even long skirts available for men, and men look good in them.

For me it's the motion. I can move and feel the fabric swinging against my legs. It's a delight, a garment made for walking and skateboarding.

Lise Nelson would have gotten the Life-changer of the Year award for 2003. The kilt is all her fault. That other changes overtook this one is Jack Fox's fault, but that's another story.

Written 2003 April 18
Edited and amended April 18, 20, May 3
Epilogue added May 6, 9
Further editing and rewriting June 14
Amended 2005 June 11

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