Squinting at the blinding white sand from under a straw hat, Brian Wiglesworth sees something unusual in the acres of crystal quartz on Siesta Key Beach. Where most people see an ideal volleyball court or a picnic area, he sees art.
Wiglesworth, a master sand sculptor for more than a dozen years, was on Siesta Beach Friday, Nov. 6, directing preparations for the upcoming 6th annual Siesta Key Crystal Classic international sand sculpting festival.
The event is a partnership between the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and Mote Marine Laboratory, Inc., to promote tourism and awareness of sea turtle conservation.
Maria Bankemper is the event chair and logistics manager. She and Wiglesworth started the event together in 2010.
“We were looking to draw the community together and produce something unique,” says Bankemper . “This is an event that I’ve truly poured my heart and soul into.”
She’s not the only one. According to Bankemper, eight months spent raising $250,000 in donations and sponsorships, and the work of 300 volunteers culminate in the four-day event, whose economic impact is over $2.5 million.
But before commencement, Wiglesworth and his small team have to set the stage.
A backhoe moves sand into 15-ton piles, each about six feet high. Sand is placed in stepped plywood structures that resemble ziggurats, doused, packed and then left to stand. It's the sand-sculptor’s equivalent of digging marble out of a quarry. All that remains is for 24 master sculptors to render something out of each pile.
When the competition begins Nov. 13, sculptors will use a mix of tools adapted from other uses, like furniture sliders, palette knives and dental tools. Some, like “Amazin’” Walter MacDonald, unmistakable with his long white beard and pith helmet, make their own. He is the oldest practicing sand sculptor, Wiglesworth said, and he will return to compete again this year. Last year’s winners, Morgan Rudluff and Abe Waterman, will be back to defend their title as well.
Some are more technical, drawing out concepts weeks in advance, and some more romantic, Wiglesworth said.
“Some people just sit and stare at the sand for hours,” he said, “and then start working.”
Amateurs will also compete, and a gamut of events that have become crowd favorites will return, such as the “Quick Sand” timed sculpting competition and a Christmas-themed sculpture created by Wiglesworth. Linda Craig will photograph people with the Christmas sculpture to benefit Manasota Operation Troop Support.
The event will also include sculpting lessons, food and retail from more than 60 vendors, a Kona Brewing party tent and an amateur sculpting competition.
The international festival will bring master sculptors from Russia, the Czech Republic and Ireland, and they will compete for $15,000 in prize money.
For now, Wiglesworth and his small team will continue to gather sand from the excavation sites, pulling 600 tons of 99% quartz crystal from the top four inches of beach. Near the shore, kids and adults do the same, albeit on a much smaller scale, with small shovels and buckets.
And that’s the reason, Wiglesworth thinks, events like the Crystal Classic have such a broad appeal. As he said, “Everyone’s had their time to play in the sand.”
For all the preparation, the art only lasts as long as the festival, and at the close of the event, all 600 tons of sand will return to the volleyball courts and picnic areas.
“It’s ephemeral,” says Wiglesworth. “You take all this time to prepare something — and then in a few hours, it’s gone.”