When Rusty Croft wriggled into the jaws of the giant beast, a crowd gathered around its jutting teeth, ready to spring into action if the unthinkable happened — the sand that composed the hulking fish sculpture collapsed.
The frightening denizen, a sand sculpture crafted by Croft and Chris Guinto, won second place at the 2011 Siesta Key Crystal Classic. This year, the event that generates $2.5 million in economic impact in Sarasota County faces competition from an overlapping sand-sculpting event in Fort Myers, which has already lured the 2011 champs. The World Championship of Sand Sculpting will be held starting Nov. 6 through the weekend on Fort Myers Beach; the Crystal Classic is slated for the weekend of Nov. 9.
The problem, explains master sand sculptor and Crystal Classic organizer Brian Wigelsworth, is that there’s a tight window for fall sand-sculpting events. There is usually a three-week span between the end of sea-turtle nesting season, hurricane season, and Thanksgiving weekend. Sculptors, many of whom come from around the world, are not likely to travel during that weekend, says Wigelsworth.
That ideal period is two weeks in 2012, making the overlap nearly inevitable. This year, Fort Myers sand-competition organizers invited Dan Belch and Karen Fralich, the duo that won first place at last year’s Crystal Classic, to Fort Myers before Crystal Classic organizers could invite them back.
There is another overlap between the Crystal Classic and the Fort Myers competition. Bill Knight, a master sand sculptor and owner of Fort Myers-based Sand Lovers LLC, was also co-founder of Wigelsworth’s company, Sand Lubbers. The latter firm was contracted to help organize the Crystal Classic in 2011.
Because Knight lives in Fort Myers, he is also a key player in the World Championship of Sand Sculpting. The board of directors of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce hasn’t yet contacted Knight about the Siesta Key sculpting event, he told the Pelican Press in a phone interview.
“The Crystal Classic holds a special place in my heart,” he said.
Knight did not want to discuss reports about a verbal altercation between him and Wigeslworth during last year’s event, but he said he cut ties with Sand Lubbers earlier this year.
“Brian and I had different business visions and each went our separate way,” he said. “It basically came down to making a smart business decision.”
But, with all seven cast members of the Travel Channel reality show, “Sand Masters,” slated to compete in the Crystal Classic, Wigelsworth’s concerns are few. The picturesque view from his Siesta Key rental that contains one of his sand sculptures doesn’t hurt, either.
Wigelsworth earned his title of master sand sculptor when he won first place in a state sand-sculpting competition in Fort Lauderdale; the master sculptor organizers invited him back the following year. That invitation is crucial to add the title of “master” to a sculptor’s name.
“I actually became a master really quickly,” he says. “And a lot of other masters didn’t like that.”
Since then he has juggled sand-sculpting competitions along with work in the corporate world.
“If you want to get noticed at a trade show, there’s nothing better than a sand sculpture,” he says.
With that unique experience, Wigelsworth has proved a treasure for organizers of the Crystal Classic.
“I have the capability of creating master sculptors because I run a master event,” he explains. “And, if I invite someone to that event, they become a master.”
“There are only about 200 master sculptors in the world, of which I’m one of them, so it’s pretty easy for us to get some good ones,” he said at the June meeting of the Siesta Key Village Association. “Well, for me to get them, anyway.”
Siesta Key Beach being named last year “America’s No. 1 Beach” by Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman is certainly a perk for attracting sculptors. But, Wigelsworth says when the competition stops, the fun begins for sand sculptors.
“We sit out by the beach with ukuleles and beers,” he says of the festivities that follow.
Fun times aside, the cooperation between different Sarasota County organizations is the biggest factor in luring star sculptors. Professionals who come to the Crystal Classic are treated like celebrities, Wigelsworth says. Sponsorships are crucial in helping organizers pay for hotel stays, transportation and meals. With sculptors coming from Europe — seven Crystal Classic contenders are from Holland — competitors can easily end up losing money on an event if they don’t receive sponsorships. They make $1,000 per day at average events, he explains.
Transportation is something that organizers hope to smooth out this year, Wigelsworth said during the SKVA meeting. Last year, shuttles running from Phillippi Estate Park did not make rounds fast enough to keep people from being stuck in the heat, Cheryl Gaddie said at the same meeting. Wigelsworth says the organizers are expecting to add more bus routes this year.
‘We need those little Jetsons things,” Gaddie quipped.
Although the even doesn’t begin until November, preparations are already in motion.
What Wigelsworth says the Crystal Classic needs, especially with the competition from the Fort Myers event, is volunteers and support.
“I think the Crystal Classic has been really key in getting a lot of attention for (Sarasota County), so if you haven’t gotten involved, please get involved any way you can,” he said at the SKVA meeting. “If it’s not through a sponsorship, then we just need helping hands; we need to feed the sculptors.”
Brian Wigelsworth flips through his portfolio and settles on two pages of sketches and photographs. The sand sculptor must act as architect and contractor to create a competitive work of art. “Zen Garden,” a scene depicting a young Japanese woman kneeling next to a koi pond, started with an idea. Then, he did the staging, a drawing with a view from above the ground to show where each piece of the scene would be. Then he drew a 3D rendering as inspiration for the sculpture. It can take more than 26 hours to finish a sculpture, Wigelsworth says.