A world in a grain of sand: Sculpture artists return to Lake Michigan's shores

2014-05-19T07:58:00Z 2014-08-17T18:22:09Z A world in a grain of sand: Sculpture artists return to Lake Michigan's shoresChristine Bryant
May 19, 2014 7:58 am  • 

On display for the world to see, the largest sand sculpture park in the Middle East was built by an artist from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Ted Siebert, owner of The Sand Sculpture Co., located in the north suburbs of Chicago, spent months with his team, carving by hand the 35,000 tons of sand for the record-breaking project in Kuwait. It was a labor of love that thousands witnessed over the four months it was on display this year.

Since returning to the United States, Siebert has continued his trade - a career that draws on creativity, a sense of youthfulness and a love of travel, yet attracts few.

"I would say there's probably only about 200 professional sand sculptors," he says. "Most of us are friends and know each other."

With sand sculpting competitions scattered throughout the coastal cities of the United States, those in Northwest Indiana don't have to venture far to see the work of some of these artists, as living near sandy beaches opens the opportunity up to catch professionals' work in progress - and sometimes novice sculptors trying their hand at the craft for fun.

Each year, visitors to the Indiana Dunes State Park have seen the sand turn from tiny pieces of quartz and other mineral deposits to larger-than-life castles, turtles, alligators and more.

Now in its 17th year, this year's Sand Sculpture Contest will take place July 12, and is expected to once again be a favorite among beach goers, says Brad Bumgardner, interpretive naturalist with the state park. Participants can arrive first thing in the morning at 7, and will spend the next few hours fine tuning their pieces for the judges, who will begin viewing the structures at noon.

Mark Mason, owner of the sand sculpting company, Team Sandtastic, knows all about that time crunch that comes with sand sculpting.

"We've carved things for TV shows in 10 minutes," he says. "We've had an ongoing performance art for 90 straight days in Hong Kong."

While some sculpting events can last hours or days, even weeks, they have one thing in common, Mason says.

"In each, we push the medium we're in to its maximum abilities," he says. "That push, and admittedly some of the tremendous shoveling we can get into, could be considered hard by some, but that's an aspect I like about the art of sand sculpting - we make our own medium."

Travel often comes with the job of a sand sculptor - with professionals seeing the world, as the world in return sees their art.

"We travel the globe, even Chicago, crafting sand and snow," Mason says. "Next month a team of us will travel to Macau, China, for a large building replica."

It can be an exciting thought to someone just starting out in the competitive field, but a career in sculpting also comes with challenges that other fields don't often have associated with them.

"Our work is always under scrutiny - people are always watching us as we work," Siebert says. "That can be a little tough to take sometimes. It's not so bad now, but it was when we first started out."

For Siebert, who has been sculpting for 25 years, says getting the right material for the sculpture is half the battle - and despite what many think, the perfect sand isn't the sand that gets stuck between toes at the beach.

"The ideal material is sand that has a lot of silt in it, like river sand," he says. "You don't want that grainy stuff at all. Ocean beach sand carves well, but it doesn't hold up well after the water is drained out. Silty sand dries out more like a sugar cube."

Those unable to make it to this year's Indiana Dunes State Park event will have other opportunities to catch carvers in action. Grand Haven, Michigan's 33rd annual Sand Sculpture Contest will take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 21.

"Participants are given a two-hour time block from 10 a.m. to noon to sculpt the sand without any artificial supports," says Courtney Geurink, one of the event's organizers.

With children and whole families invited to participate, Geurink says this event isn't a professional competition - a question she gets asked often.

"It is for anyone and everyone who wants to sculpt something out of hand," she says.

For more information on the Grand Haven Sand Sculpture Contest, go to

Port Huron's Blue Water SandFest will take place July 4-6. The Michigan festival will feature events for master sculptors, as well as amateurs. More than 10,000 attend this festival each year. For more information, go to

The National Cherry Festival July 5-12 in Traverse City, Mich., will feature a family sand sculpture contest. For more information on this festival, go to

Take a walk along the beaches of Chicago and you might find some sculptures as well. Siebert says he recently completed a project at Oak Street Beach for an event at the John Hancock building.

"They wanted us to do a sculpture that could be seen from the 95th floor, so we had to it laying flat so you could stand up on the floor and look down at it," he says.

For more information on the sand sculpture contest at the Indiana Dunes State Park, go to

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