They call themselves sand sculptors—artists who build massive structures on the beach for fun and profit, only to watch their work disappear overnight.
1 of 6Photographer: Michael Hanson
The late 1990s clobbered Kirk Rademaker. He was in his 40s, a trained carpenter with a stressful job. His refuge was the Pacific Ocean. Every weekend, Kirk would jump into his car and drive to Stinson Beach, where he'd immerse himself in building sand sculptures.
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.
2 of 6Photographer: Michael Hanson
A New Life
Kirk, now 60, lives in Santa Cruz, and gets hired by Bay Area companies like Facebook and George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic to build sculptures for corporate theme parties. He carves at trade shows and private gatherings, including a birthday party for Dustin Hoffman's wife. And last year he was tapped to co-host Sand Masters, a Travel Channel reality series that features a team of sculptors creating masterpieces in exotic locations.
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
3 of 6Photographer: Michael Hanson
Lucinda Wierenga, who is 54 and goes by the professional name "Sandy Feet," was a high-school English teacher when she discovered South Padre Island. It became her refuge from work and Lucinda, who had never attended art classes, found her medium in the sand. "It was a revelation to me when people started walking up and saying, 'Wow, you're really an artist,' " she says.
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.
4 of 6Photographer: Michael Hanson
Carl Jara, a 38-year-old sculptor from Cleveland, has been competing at the championship level since 1998. "When I first got there, a lot of it was dolphins and castles and teddy bears," he says. Inspired by European sculptors who "would rather die than make a mermaid," Carl decided early on that he wanted to test the limits. Now, Carl says, his colleagues are catching up and passing him.
"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."
5 of 6Photographer: Michael Hanson
For beachgoers, sand-sculpting competitions are a spectacle. For the artists themselves, it's a homecoming. No one knows exactly how many people earn their livings as sand sculptors, but estimates hover around 100 or fewer in the United States. Those artists who carve competitively often intersect during the annual contest circuit.
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.
Unfortunately, within a week, the effects of weather and grubby hands will be obvious. In another few weeks, they'll be gone. "That's one of the hardest things we have to learn—to let go," Lucinda says.
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