Art rises out of sand on the Isle of Palms

The Sand Squad's finished piece, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the sand-sculpting competition.

Melanie Deziel

Chris Tindal and Norma Jean Page have “a marriage with sand sculpture,” according to Page, the Recreation Director for Isle of Palms.

Tindal is a sand sculpture veteran, having competed on a number of the nation’s beaches. He’s served as the main volunteer coordinator with the Piccolo Spoleto sand-sculpting competition for the past 18 years; Page has worked enthusiastically at his side for the last 15.

Early Saturday morning, Tindal fired the traditional shot from his aquamarine squirt gun. This year, he signaled the opening of the 25th annual event on the Isle of Palms’ front beach. Forty teams preregistered for this year’s event and more than 50 competed for prizes in seven categories: children, young adult, adult, family, best architecture, most creative and best of show. Page said they had a record number of family teams this year.

Tindal was happy as a clam, especially when an adventurous young competitor approached him with a technical question. Colby Strickland, 11, and his mother Kelly, from Goose Creek, wanted to sculpt a volcano, then make it explode using diet soda and Mentos.

“This wasn’t designed,” Kelly Strickland said. “We just got out here and my son decided he wanted to explode a volcano.”

Legs perched on either side of his sand cruiser bicycle, Tindal leaned forward and brainstormed directly with the little man about how to make his volcano explode. The problem was that the Piccolo Spoleto sand-sculpting competition has a strict rule about using only all-natural construction materials; a diet soda bottle is not a natural material. Instead of sculpting a sand volcano around a bottle of open diet soda, the idea was to create a natural cup to hold the soda since the sand would be too porous on its own.

Colby Strickland eventually strode off to Plot Y at the far end of the beach to build his sculpture around a hole in the sand lined with shells. The Stricklands’ volcano didn’t end up taking home a prize in the children’s category, but it did gurgle out a respectable amount of shell-encrusted lava.

Last year’s winners, Sand Squad, returned to defend their title with a vast array of sand-sculpting tools. Rachael Mahaffay, 37, of Hanahan, wore a drinking straw clipped to a lanyard around her neck. After carving some brick detail in the turret of her sand castle (with a small hand tool she ordered online as part of a sand-sculpting kit), Mahaffay would gently blow through the straw to remove the excess sand from the sculpture. Sand Squad built a traditional sand castle on top of a large number 25 “to represent the 25 years of magic” of the competition, Mahaffay said.

Mahaffay’s Sand Squad this year included her husband, Jeff, her father-in-law Joe from Colorado, and her niece Jabrae Lanning, 21, from Summerville. “My team members have changed every year,” Mahaffay explained, “but it’s always all family.” Sand Squad won Best of Show Overall.

David Burt, competing for the 15th year in the adult category, made up his team’s name on the spot. “How about something with Bart?” he said.

Burt explained how he and his teammates came up with the idea on Thursday to sculpt Bartholomeaux, this year’s Piccolo Spoleto mascot. Burt, along with teammates Brian Wurst, Chad Stilley and Dan Schaeffer ended up calling themselves Burt’s Buddies.

“We’re calling our sculpture, ‘Bartholomeaux Can’t Sing,’” Burt said, describing how Bart’s piccolo would lay off to the side as a cardinal, sprayed with red food coloring, mocked him. Bart’s Buddies won best of show in the adult category.

Tindal said The American Institute of Architects donated money, which the Piccolo Spoleto sand sculpting competition used, along with money from an accommodations tax, to provide each first place winner with a plaque. Best of show overall and best of show in the family category also took home corn hole game boards featuring the competition’s sand castle logo.

The competition was first and foremost about fun — for the competing teams and for the flocks of people who crowded front beach, lining up to have a look at each sand sculpture like visitors at an amusement park.

“You would think it’s competitive,” Tindal said of the vibe on the beach, “but it’s not the Olympics. It’s all very friendly and fun.”

Paige Cooperstein is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.