Jerry Sparkman emerges from the back of his office at his downtown architectural firm, Sweet Sparkman Architecture, holding a baseball-sized chunk of unpolished quartz crystal. The stone, which he bought from a street-side vendor, holds a special significance to the local architect: The vendor dug it out of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Tennessee, which Sparkman also knew happened to be the origin of Siesta Key’s nearly pure quartz sand. Hailing from Tennessee, himself, Sparkman says it was an easy sell.
“I never used to think about the origins of materials,” he says. “The sand we sit on came from those mountains millions of years ago. It fascinates me. I realized that I’ve been walking around for 45 years taking that kind of thing for granted.”
Sparkman’s new interest in the origins of materials was piqued while working with his business partner, Todd Sweet, and six Ringling College of Art and Design students on a collaborative architectural exhibit in Venice, Italy, which incorporated two tons of Siesta Key sand.
The exhibit, aptly titled, “Origins,” is currently on display at the 13th Venice Biennale of Architecture, where both established and young architects and designers are invited to showcase their work.
Sparkman’s vision for “Origins” was to construct a space in which guests could experience a representation of his own origins as an architect. The exhibit consists of a large room, in which Siesta Key sand is re-circulated like a waterfall, raining down from the ceiling and collecting in a small mound before spilling between the floorboards and starting the process over again. Behind the “waterfall” sits a wall of nearly 800 glass bricks, crafted by the Ringling students, from Siesta sand.
“I wanted it to be very experiential,” says Sparkman. “It was quite a unique notion to take our Siesta Key sand; ship it 5,000 miles across the ocean to Italy and shine Venetian light on it.”
// More than a job
Architecture is more than blueprints, drafts and drawing boards to Sparkman. It’s not the cut-and-dry profession it’s often made out to be, he says, existing purely out of the need to create space for people. Sparkman sees architecture as akin to art, and, for him, it provides a rousing creative outlet.
“Throughout the whole process of design, there’s a sense of discovery,” he says. “When you’re challenged with a design, you’re driven by your own curiosity. It’s a self-perpetuating thing. I like the opportunity to click on the right side of my brain; it’s invigorating.”
Sparkman’s passion for creativity isn’t surprising. Always fascinated by art, and drawing in particular, much of his childhood Sparkman spent in art classrooms. After high school, the Tennessee native moved west to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, before following in his father’s footsteps in the field of architecture.
Having grown up drawing in his father’s drafting room, Sparkman says his familiarity with the process made the career choice a natural one. After a year in California, he moved backed to his home state to get an undergraduate degree in architecture and eventually earned his master’s in drafting from the University of Virginia.
For the past 11 years, Sparkman has called Sarasota home, and he says he draws a lot of inspiration from the city’s Sarasota School of Architecture-era buildings.
“When I moved here, I saw a really interesting body of work from the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “So, I was inspired by the culture, and the town had a good vibe and great people.”
He and business partner, Todd Sweet, have worked together since 2004, and their work has earned them international design industry recognition.
// Artistic opportunity
When Sparkman and Sweet first heard from Dutch artist, Rene Rietmeyer, who invited them to participate in this year’s Biennale, the two were convinced they’d been contacted by mistake.
“We thought it was bogus,” Sparkman says with a laugh. “We joked that it was like those emails you get from a Nigerian prince; all they need is our routing number!”
But, there was no mistake. Rietmeyer, the curator of the event, had seen the award-winning Casey Key guesthouse designed by Sparkman and Sweet and felt the two would be a perfect fit for the Biennale. The theme of this year’s event was “Common Ground,” and its goal was to display the shared experiences of architects.
After a few weeks of deliberation, Sparkman and Sweet decided that the exhibition was something they’d like to participate in, but they didn’t want to merely display their completed architectural works.
“We wanted to make an exhibit about what inspires us,” says Sparkman. “Our work often has us working along the coast, and we wanted to look at the ground that we put our projects on and incorporate that in some way.”
After some brainstorming, they landed on the sand concept, and Sparkman saw an opportunity to involve students from Ringling, so he called Ringling President Larry Thompson to pitch the idea. Thompson loved it, and soon, Sparkman and Sweet were working alongside six students in the fine-arts, sculpture, action-design and management programs.
“The students were great,” says Sparkman. “They inevitably influenced and shaped the exhibit. They had a big hand in making it more of a conceptual display.”
After receiving permission from county commissioners to borrow the sand, Sparkman and the students went out to the beach, equipped with 60 five-gallon buckets and began digging. From there, the buckets were sealed, put through customs and shipped to Venice.
Partnering with Ringling, which underwrote half of the expenses, and with sponsorships from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Visit Sarasota and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, Sparkman, Sweet and the students began preliminary work, developing mock-ups as artists in residence at the Conservation Foundation’s Bay Preserve. The group traveled to Venice a week before the exhibit’s August opening to construct their home away from home.
Of the nearly 60 exhibits, only a handful of architects chose to pursue a conceptual exhibit, and Sparkman says the slice of Siesta Key was well-received by patrons.
“It kind of set the tone for the whole Biennale,” he says. “It became sort of a gathering place. The adults were a little apprehensive, but the kids got it. They knew to get in there and interact with the sand.”
Sparkman says “Origins” will be returned to Sarasota at the end of Biennale in late November, and he hopes to find a place to display it locally, with the possibility of drawing some national attention and a tour around the country.
Sparkman says the whole process was a great learning experience in fusing art and architecture, and he hopes to find ways to combine the two fields in the future.
“It really made me rethink what architecture is about,” he says. “Working with the students and the overlap in disciplines helped me explore what it could be. I’d like to explore other opportunities to do that.”