News Column

The 24th annual Coney Island Sand Sculpting Contest is Saturday

August 14, 2014

By Sheila Anne Feeney, amNewYork, New York



Aug. 14--Frustrated real estate developers and 3-D artists will be erecting all manner of castles, critters, corporate logos and high-concept sculptures between West 10th and West 12th Streets on Coney Island Beach noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The 24th Annual Coney Island Sand Sculpting Contest will draw hundreds of people to compete in group and individual sand sculpting in what one group contestant John Alberga, 57, of Sea Cliff, NY, mooned is a "wonderful, upbeat day."

During the day of the sand sculpting contest, the beach "looks like the cantina in the Star Wars movie," said Alberga, the engineering manager for a food machinery company.

The contestants who vie for prizes ranging from $100 to $400 are diverse in age, background and aesthetic sensibility, but there is one fact upon which they all agree: The sand in Coney Island is among the best in the world.

"The sand in Coney Island is truly magnificent," for building and carving, affirmed Matt Long, a professional sand sculptor from West Brighton, SI, who also owns a wood restoration business.

Just as Manhattan schist makes a great anchor for skyscrapers, Coney's sand has "a fine angular grain and good silt content to help hold it together," that allows sculptors not only to build higher, but more elaborately, resulting in mind-boggling tall and precise sand sculptures, Long said.

Past entries have included elephants, giant brains, a pride of lions, renderings of Luna Park and the New York Aquarium, and, naturally, castles.

Hundreds of such contests have washed into seaside towns worldwide to boost local economies, noted Long, who is paid $1,500 to $3,000 a day to construct corporate logos out of sand, but Brooklyn's beach provides the best of raw materials, he said.

Some people speculate that eons worth of Coppertone percolating into the Coney Island sand helps hold the grains together, joked Tim O'Keefe, a plumber from Sea Cliff, LI, who won the adult team contest last year with a Merlinesque castle he built with Alberga and another friend, Rich Demand.

"We're always debating why it's such great sand. We can build three feet higher on Coney than on Fire Island," not because Brooklyn's air rights are more liberal, but because the sand there is so satisfyingly cohesive, O'Keefe said.

"I LOVE working with it," Alberga rhapsodized.

The Coney Island contest even draws celebrities: Brooklyn-born actor Vincent D'Onofrio took second place with his family in 2011 for a castle his clan built and first place in 2012 for their interpretation of a treasure chest spilling pirated plunder amidst bones and skulls.

"Sand castlers" as they're sometimes called, are creative people who can't bear idleness. They'd rather be raising a barn than lolling in the hay and they love turning a day at the beach into a competitive challenge. "OCD is what you have to have," to be a sand sculptor, said Long, using the abbreviation for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Cooperative "castling" teaches friends to stick together, like, well, the legendary Coney sand. Alberga and O'Keefe, who compete with a third pal, learned their team works best when jamming not unlike an improvisational band. "The only time we've ever had strife is when we had a plan," O'Keefe recalled.

"It's always add, add, add. You never look at someone's stuff and say, 'I'm going to do that over!'" said Alberga.

"We're tweakers! We circle around and say, 'You don't mind if I reach out with my trowel and tweak this a little, do you?'" elaborated O'Keefe.

Sand carvers -- who show up with tools, molds and hoses -- aren't averse to philosophical musings on their ephemeral art. Reconciling oneself to the fact that one's labors would be demolished, "took some getting used to," admitted Long, who declines to watch the erosion or destruction of his creations and leaves "while they're thoroughly intact."

"We've learned so much castling over the years," said Alberga. "You know in advance it isn't going to last, so you learn to deal with disappointment, to pace yourself, to pick yourself back up and do it again. It's a whole zen thing," Alberga explained.

"People are fascinated because we do all that work and then walk away," said O'Keefe. But, he added, "nothing is permanent. Nothing! If you get a day at the beach, a cocktail and you take a picture of what you made, you win."

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Source: AM New York


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