Sculpting sand

Sand is naturally sculpted by wind and water: lifted and swirled to create ever-changing dunes, or washed to and fro and compacted in a shifting pattern of ripples. If the topography and environment change over geological time-scales, the sculpting, the patterning, might be fixed and lithified; later, much later, it might be re-sculpted by human sculptors and stone-masons.

The impulse to re-model fresh sand, wet sand, is simpler and hard to resist, and along the Solway coast the tide drops to reveal a firm and inviting sea-washed strand.

banner cropPeople, tall or short, standing, squatting, working or chatting, are busy in a corner of the beach at St Bees’, which has been marked off in rectangles by tape. Wrapped in warm layers against the fierce May wind and intermittent rain, and dwarfed by the tall red sandstone cliffs behind them, they are digging and piling and patting the sand. The theme of Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Beached Art competition is ‘The Irish Sea’.

St Bees', May 10th 2014

St Bees’, May 10th 2014

Midway through the session, castles and harbours, a whale, seals, sea-horses, a loggerhead turtle, and massive lobster-claws are taking shape. “I just love this competition,” a man enthuses as he smooths and pats the curved flank of a seal. Most of the sculptures are in high relief with curving contours, none reaches for the sky with sharply-delineated angles; there are no wrecks, no kelp forests. The sand is damp enough to allow such structural fancies, but the time is short, only 90 minute – possibly a relief given the unforgiving weather that is battering CWT’s tiny marquees.

Dampness – specifically the amount of water and its arrangement between the sand-grains – is the crucial factor in sculpting sand.

'Thixotropy' - or liquefaction, set in stone

‘Thixotropy’ – or liquefaction, then set in stone

You can see for yourself how firm sand ‘liquefies’ and then sets hard in a new shape by paddling your feet up and down on the shore. An explanation for this thixotropic effect – or “making cows’ bellies”, as someone who used to spend a lot of time in Morecambe Bay more picturesquely calls it – can be found here.

And a recent post, ‘Water on the desert sands‘, by Michael Welland at his ‘Through the sandglass blog’ refers to a technique used in heavy-haulage work done by the Egyptians …

This can also be done with your hands, in a technique called ‘hand-stacking’, to build up ‘pancakes’ of sand and create a tall  sculpture: there are photos of some airy vertical structures in the ‘How to make sand sculptures‘ video gallery on the ‘Sand in Your Eye‘ website.

The type of sand (for example, beach or estuarine) is also important, depending on whether the sculpture is to be ephemeral or long-lasting; whether the site is inter-tidal or not could also be important!

Or, rather than building upwards, you could try making pictures, as in this very moving tribute, ‘The Fallen‘ , created by hundreds of people on the beach at Arromanches on Peace Day, 21st September 2013

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