They call themselves sand sculptors—artists who build massive structures on the beach for fun and profit, only to watch their work disappear overnight.
His small experiments in the sand turned into larger ones: abstract forms that nurtured his creativity and attracted spectators. Sometimes hours would pass without a negative thought. He loved how the beach forced him out of his natural introversion.
Convinced that he needed to overhaul his life, Kirk quit his job and became a full-time professional sand sculptor. Soon Kirk was participating in sand-sculpting competitions around North America.
Sometimes he even gets paid to compete in competitions. But he doesn't consider that a major part of his income. "I come here to have fun and see my friends," he says.
Left: Kirk and his sculpting partner Helena Bangert at Siesta Key
Nowadays, she gives carving lessons and runs corporate team-building events during which employees learn to cooperate by sculpting together. She accepts commissions for beach-wedding sculptures and will-you-marry-me castles. She has written three books on the subject. She creates beach "billboards" for businesses and special occasions. And she's competed around the world.
"Most of these guys I've known for a decade or more," he explains. "I've seen them go from what sand sculpture had been for 30 years to pushing the limits of what we do—conceptually and visually and technically. We are capable of amazing, amazing things—and now we're starting to attract new people who are pushing the field farther."
On South Padre during the annual Sandcastle Days competition, that history is evident: The carvers are a boisterous, affectionate pack, prone to goofing off in public. They say they're living their second childhoods, and in some cases, their first ones.
Left: "Sandy Feet" competes all over the world. She blogs at blog.sandyfeet.com.
Carl doesn't mind the impermanence. "Nobody else but me," he says, "will ever make a dime off of my work."
As for Kirk, yielding to that transience has given him the inner peace that once eluded him. "I spent the first 50 years of my life investing in things I thought would last, and realizing that nothing really does," he says. "Thank God this is temporary. That's what saved me."
Left: "The Two of Us," a sculpture by carving team Sandis Kondrats and Sue McGrew