Thousands turn out on Siesta Beach to admire skills of master sand artists

A volunteer for the Crystal Classic offers her appreciation of the five-day event

First prize winner earns the People's Choice Award, too. Photo by Harriet Cuthbert
The first prize winner earns the People’s Choice Award, too. Photo by Harriet Cuthbert

You would have thought the Rolling Stones were appearing on Siesta Key Beach. That is how long the line stretched to buy tickets for the Crystal Classic on Saturday, Nov. 12.

From my spot in the admissions tent, I could not see the end of the line; the reason, someone told me, is that it went all the way back to the parking lot.

That was at 9:59 a.m., and we were about to open the gate. The vendors were ready with their wares, food and beer; the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce was ready with T-shirts, coffee mugs and programs; the music had begun; and we were ready to celebrate the seventh annual Crystal Classic Master Sand Sculpting Festival.

Ladies and gentlemen, it was “Show Time.”

The artists began working their magic on Friday. By Saturday, their creations literally were beginning to take shape. I saw a sailboat with an eye carved into its sail, for one example. As with many of the other pieces, I could not begin to imagine what the finished “product” would be titled or what it would really look like.

Next, I watched a man sculpting a very intricate and detailed piece that was really quite abstract, because it did not appear to have a shape I could identify.

Abram Waterman and Walter MacDonald celebrate their top prize in the 2016 Crystal Classic. Photo courtesy Mote Marine
Abram Waterman and Walter MacDonald celebrate taking top prize in the 2016 Crystal Classic. Photo courtesy Mote Marine

I kept walking amid the crowd and then looked up to see a stunning carving of a giant head with a boy and girl peeking into its hollowed-out eyes. When I walked around to the back of it, suddenly, a huge and beautiful castle appeared. (This was definitely my favorite).

What could these brilliant and talented artists possibly name their masterpieces?

The crowds were going wild — but very quietly, because they did not want to disturb the artists — and because they were in awe. Many visitors remarked on the depth of emotion projected by various pieces. How could our eyes tell us all this came from just sand and water?

I could not wait for the next day.

Photo by Harriet Cuthbert
Photo by Harriet Cuthbert

On Sunday, the competition officially ended. Judging from the crowd, this had to be the greatest event ever held on Siesta Beach that involved paid admission. As a volunteer, I was stamping hands of people (so they could come and go after paying to enter the sculpting area), which meant I was able to see and greet half the visitors while my partner saw the other half. I could easily write an article just on the visitors, but I will sum up by saying I have never seen such happy people. They generously complimented the volunteers, admired the Save the Turtles program and never once complained about the admission fee, which was raised to $10 this year.

(Proceeds from the event go to Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sea Turtle Conservation & Research Program.)

After I had completed my work assignment — must have stamped at least 5,000 hands — I was ready to see the final creations. The artists were actually required to stop working at noon, with the results to be announced at 3 p.m. First prize was $5,000.

Photo by Harriet Cuthbert
The Billy Lyons Band performs. Photo by Harriet Cuthbert

Many artists make a full-time career of sand sculpting and travel the world to find the best sand. Many have agreed that the stunning, soft, powdery quartz sand of Siesta Beach is the best. People have come here from Russia, Holland, Quebec and other distant places to compete on our beach.

The castle I mentioned before was exquisite in its detail and depth. Nearby, I saw a lovely rendition of a gorilla family, with the mom and dad lovingly holding their newborn baby. On the other side of the area was a beautiful, stark, contemporary sculpture that reminded me of many modern masterworks I have seen at various museums around the world. Also, I noticed that many of the pieces this year were not named, which could mean the artists wanted us to interpret them for ourselves.

Photo by Harriet Cuthbert
Photo by Harriet Cuthbert

I could not end this story without acknowledging the musical side of the Crystal Classic, especially the exuberant and talented Billy Lyons Band. I am reliving the feeling of rubbing my toes in the sand while singing along to its popular tunes. It was a huge dose of sensory overload.

Thanks for a wonderful and memorable weekend and a fantastic event. See you next year.

And now presenting the winners …

Photo by Harriet Cuthbert
Photo by Harriet Cuthbert

Abram Waterman from Canada and Walter MacDonald (nicknamed Amazin’ Walter) from Texas won the $5,000 first prize and the People’s Choice Award of $1,000 in the Crystal Classic this year for Sneak Peek, Mote Marine announced. The sculpture was a large portrait of MacDonald’s face with two children peeking through his eyes, which provided “windows onto a detailed sand castle in the back,” a Mote press release says.

“It’s a look into the amazing brain of Amazin’ Walter,” Waterman pointed out in the release.

“You can look through there and see what I’m thinking,” MacDonald added in the release. “I’ve participated in this event for all seven years, and the event is so good that winning isn’t the most important thing, but this is my first time winning first prize, so hallelujah!”

Other prizes and winners were as follows:

  • Second place — ($4,000): In the Kingdom of Edgar Allan Poe by Andrius Petkus of Lithuania and Dmitry Klimenko of Russia.
  • Third place ($3,000) — Whatever Floats Your Boat by Kirk Rademaker from California and Matt Long from New York.
  • Sculptors’ choice: ($2,000) — Energy of the Universe by Radovan Živný and Jan Zelinka.