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Sand Sculptor

Sue McGrew creates astonishing works of art—out of sand

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LOST WORLD: McGrew and a teammate built this sand sculpture titled Atlantis in Australia.

Anyone who’s ever been to the beach or played in a sandbox has likely built a sand castle or two. But the creations probably didn’t tower four stories tall like some of those constructed by Sue McGrew.

McGrew is a professional sand sculptor who lives in Seattle, Washington. She’s carved incredibly detailed sculptures of everything from giant dragons to larger-than-life portraits of historical figures. Despite all the effort that goes into her artworks, most last just a few days or weeks. Things like wind, rain, and gravity—the force that pulls objects toward Earth—eventually cause her creations to crumble. “People wonder if I’m sad when a sculpture goes away, but I’m not,” says McGrew. “It’s about the experience of creating it, and part of the beauty is that it goes back to nature.”

McGrew started sculpting sand in high school. She now travels the world creating works of art out of sand. McGrew spoke with Science World about her unusual craft.

How did you get started sculpting sand?

When I was in high school, I saw a master sand sculptor at a local maritime festival working on a piece. Some little kids were playing in a sandbox next to him. I joined them and made a dragon out of sand. The sculptor noticed my work and said if I came back the next day, he’d teach me more about his art. I did, and he showed me the ropes of sand sculpting. The next summer, he invited me to a sand festival where I was able to learn from many other artists.

I kept sculpting as a hobby in college. After graduating, I started getting hired by organizers of festivals, concerts, teambuilding workshops, and other events looking for sand sculptors. Sometimes my job is to create a sculpture for the occasion. Other times, I teach people how to make their own sand sculptures.

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MASTER SCULPTOR: Sue McGrew works on a piece in Massachusetts.

What are the steps involved in making a sand sculpture?

I start by building a rectangular frame called a form out of wooden panels. I fill it with sand mixed with water. Then I tamp down the wet sand with my feet or a machine called a mechanical tamper that beats down on the sand.

I add more forms on top of the first one and fill them with sand. The forms get smaller as you go up, so the structure looks like a pyramid. After peeling away the forms, I’m left with molded blocks of sand. I sculpt the blocks from the top down, using trowels, spatulas, spoons, knives, and brushes.

What factors prevent a sand sculpture from collapsing?

Water is important in sand sculpting. When you wet sand, water droplets stick to the sand grains. The droplets also cling to one another thanks to surface tension—an attraction between molecules of a liquid. That property holds the sand grains together.

The right type of sand is important too. A lot of people assume sculptors work with beach sand, and sometimes we do, but that’s often not the best type. Most beach sand is made up of grains that are large and round. This coarse sand doesn’t pack together well. I prefer river sand, which has grains that are small and fine. The grains’ texture and size help them stick together better and form a nice, sturdy block of sand when wet.

What has been your favorite sand sculpture to work on?

In 2014, I worked with a company called the Sand Guys on an assignment in Brazil. Our goal was to set a record for the world’s tallest sand castle. We succeeded with a spectacular castle that stood more than 12 meters (40 feet) tall. It was amazing.

What do you love about your job? Is there anything you dislike?

The best part about my work is that it’s never boring. I get to travel a lot and experience different cultures. And finishing a big project after hours or days is so satisfying. The worst part is having sand everywhere—in my bags, in my computer, in my phone. It’s not a job you can do if you don’t like sand.

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