Karen Fralich’s 2013 winner at the Crystal Classic.

Image: FerrerPhoto.com 

When sand sculptors from around the world gather to compete in the Siesta Key Crystal Classic (Nov. 15-18 at Siesta Key Beach), Canadian-based Karen Fralich will be among them, along with her partner, Dan Belcher. Fralich has worked in sand sculpting full-time for 20 years, claiming first place at the Classic twice—once for her sculpture of a male head contemplating a coffee mug, and again for several heads freezing in place in Winter Is Coming—but she still remembers the moment she knew it was for her.

“I had been working at a friend’s pottery studio, making little creatures out of clay,” Fralich says, “when she started dating a guy who was a professional sand sculptor and needed some help on a project. I touched the sand, and it was an epiphany.”

It took her four years of moonlighting while keeping her regular job managing a McDonald’s to master the process, which is quite a bit more complex than those castles kids build at the beach. “It’s hard but fun,” she says. “You have to be very tenacious. With a sand sculpture, the magic happens before you start carving.” Sculptors create and cut wooden forms that are nailed together to build the piece’s structure. (The nails and forms are removed later.) The artist compacts the sand into layers around the forms using a lot of pressure and lots of water.

“You get to be physical, get dirty, and make something happen quickly,” says Fralich of what draws her to the work. “One of the hardest things is coming up with fresh concepts. Sand sculptures tend to be either linear, like architecture, or looser and filled with movement, which is what I originally found easier to do. When you’re making a house or a castle, it has to have symmetry, and if you make one mistake it follows you all through the line.”

Fralich amid some of her creations.

Sculptors carry tools ranging from trowels to spoons, forks, melon ballers and cake decorators, she explains. “And everywhere you go the sand is going to be different. There’s always a getting-used-to-it day. The sand at Siesta is lovely stuff to work with; it has incredible strength, and you can get amazing details out of it. But because it’s pure white, it’s a challenge, too. You have to push the details and the shadows to make them stand out.”

It can be intense and exhausting, Fralich adds, “but we are so addicted to it, we don’t care.”

For more about the festival, which includes demonstrations, live music, food vendors and more, visit siestakeycrystalclassic.com.

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