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John Gruber, sand sculptor

Editor's Note: I interviewed American sculptor John Gruber at a party in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, August 2003. He had just participated in the annual Zeebrugge Sand Sculpture Festival in Belgium, a massive annual event involving 75 internationally-known sand sculptors and 50 million pounds of sand. Here, he discusses his art in his own words; my additions are in brackets.

There's a big difference between the Belgian sculpture and the sand sculptures I usually do. I show up there and I can just concentrate on the sculpture with very little time restraints. The sand is already prepared. I don't get to sculpt like that in most other jobs. I can do some really nice work this way.

There are great sculptors from all over the world at this sculpture. It's a great big party on 50 million pounds of sand! This past summer we had two beautiful weeks and one week of miserable rain. You're working from 9 in the morning to 7 or so at night and every morning when the sun comes up you just can't wait to get to the site to sculpt!

Normally I have to prepare the sand myself and move about half a million pounds in a typical season. The biggest job I'll handle myself is about 25 tons, and I'll do that in 3-4 days.

When you get good sand prepped the right way, it's like carving into soft stone. It carves as sweet as butter, and I can't think of a medium that sculpts as fast. You can do a 25 ton sculpture in 20 hours and that is pretty fast for such a big sculpture!

[Gruber is often hired to sculpt at parties.] A typical party, I use 4-5 tons of sand, I've got about eight hours to do it, and have to prep it on site. Hopefully you have a delivery right where you work, but sometimes you've got to wheelbarrow it in and that is not much fun. Party sculptures can be sandcastles, mermaids, dolphins, dragons, and just about anything that can be finished in time for the party!

{How is working with sand different from working in stone or wood?} Every sand is different and determines what may be sculpted. Typical beach sand uses as much water weight as sand. Other sand has more organic mater and sediment and you have to use less water. The finer the particles, the tighter it packs, and the finer the detail and higher you can make the sculpture. It holds together with just with the surface tension of the water. And if you're inside a hotel, you've got to be real careful because of weight restraints and water drainage. Water is used to increase the compaction density. And you compress it against the forms. The forms provide a barrier for resistance, so you can press to a higher density. Then you've got to have just the right amount of water percolate away. Having clean sand is a plus but sometimes you have to screen out any stones, shells, debris, or sometimes nastier things. Sand is a temporary medium, it does fall down. You make one small slip and it's gone! One of the hardest things to judge is just how far you can sculpt the sand before it does fall down!

Near where I live (southeastern New Jersey) is the birthplace of professional sand sculpting, around 1897. Along the Atlantic City boardwalk, this guy started sculpting with sand on the beach. Someone tossed a dime on his blanket and professional sand sculpting was born. It lasted that way until the 1940s when it was outlawed because the city couldn't collect any taxes from them.

[How did you get started sand sculpting?] I was working a regular job. It was a nice afternoon in June 1996 and I thought it was too nice to be working inside. I heard about a sand sculpture in Atlantic City and went to the beach to check it out. It was one of the biggest in the country. I met a bunch of sculptors, got my hands into the sand and found myself with a new medium to work in!

Before sand sculpture, I worked in R&D for a ceramic manufacturer and I'd sculpted in clay and mixed media.

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