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Playing in the sand with John Gowdy

Meet the man behind the stunning sand sculpture on display at the Marriott.

Story by David Warren and Photography by Lloyd Wainscott

Gowdy has worked with sand in more than 20 countries. He feels the sand on Hilton Head Island is some of the very best in the world for making sculptures.

In 1966, John Gowdy took his young children to the beach in Atlantic City, N.J. To entertain them, he built a hole for them to sit in, and with the sand they excavated they innocently began to make sand castles. Suddenly a crowd formed to watch what the family was creating. It was this moment that released a buried talent in John. Most of us outgrow sandcastles, but not John. For the last 25 years, John has been professionally carving sand at weddings, corporate events, hotel lobbies, state fairs and conventions. He has won multiple sand sculpture competitions, most notably the American Championships in Fort Myers, Fla., the past two years.

A retired captain of 27 years of service in the Atlantic City Fire Department, John devoted much of his time to the arts. Painting, marble sculpture, and sand sculpture have become his passions. “Sand sculpture is different from studio art because it is done in public,” John said. “It’s really performance art.”

The audience sees the project being created and usually, as the tide comes, sees it disappear. Not all of John’s sand sculptures are done on the beach. For the last 13 years, John has returned to Hilton Head Island to update and refresh his beautiful creation in the lobby of the Marriott Hilton Head Resort & Spa in Palmetto Dunes.

“When we create in a controlled environment like the hotel lobby, the sculpture can last forever — as long as people don’t put their fingers in it to see that it is, in fact, really made of sand.”

John and his wife, Laura, are on a tour of six high-end hotel lobbies that service galleries for his incredible creations.

A key element in sand sculpture is obviously the sand itself. John seeks out clean, fine sand with no rocks or shells. The sand also must have a small amount of clay to help bind it together. John notes that he has been working with sand in over 20 different countries, and the sand found on the Hilton Head Island beaches is some of the very best in the world for making sand sculptures.

Gowdy builds his intricate sculptures using masonry, cake decoration and custom tools.

The process for a creative sand sculpture starts long before getting in the sand. John begins with a basic concept that matches the event or client’s needs. He then sketches the design that will become the three-dimensional sculpture. Based on the size of the project, John will start building a base and finally the art itself. Armed with masonry, cake decoration, and a few tools of his own design, John said any idea can be created out of sand and water.

A program John particularly enjoys conducting is family sand sculpture seminars. In these seminars, John appoints the youngest child in the family to be the captain of the team. “They tend to have great imaginations, and it’s terrific to see them as team leaders. Making sand sculptures as a family is a perfect activity. Your family is outside, away from phones, television, and computers. You see the family dynamics come to life in the sand.” Laura, John’s wife, said that their training sessions have shown the world is broken into two types of people, “the builders and the wreckers.” The builders take time to conceive, design, build, and rebuild. The wreckers like to run through sculptures and watch it fall. Understandably, in our training we want to focus on the builders,” said Laura.

John says the future of sand sculpturing is positive. The talent and creativity he sees in the work of other sculptors at competitions are impressive and continues to grow. However, he worries that the number of young people participating is very low.

“I think it’s a lifestyle thing. Sculptures take a great deal of time and patience to do it right. Today’s young people tend to like more instant gratification.”

Performance versus the fine art characteristics makes it a fantastic alternative to traditional sculpture. It becomes a lesson in what patience, planning, and talent can produce, as beautiful creations come alive on our beaches. The temporary nature of the art also is a crucial aspect. John said you need to take a photo to document your work, then leave the rest to nature to return the artwork back to the beautiful beach whence it came.

Sand 101

A few tips for building better sand castles.

Pro tools: Hand shovel, 5-gallon bucket, casting buckets, spray bottle, baker’s spatula, margin trowel, straw

• Use sand that is packed hard, near the waterline.

• Avoid sand that contains rocks, shells or other debris.

• Pack wet sand into a golf ball. If the ball can roll around your hand without breaking apart, you’ve found good building sand.

• Build your castle near the waterline as the tide goes out to reduce the need for water buckets.

• Tell a story with your sculpture. Instead of creating a frog, create a scene with a frog eyeing a dragonfly in a pond with lily pads.