Coney Island

Harry Potter castle, dragons appear at Coney Island’s 25th Annual Sand Sculpting Contest

August 17, 2015 By Albin Lohr-Jones Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rich Demand, John O'Keefe and John Alberga at work on their prize winning sculpture, "Spirits of the Sea." Eagle photos by Albin Lohr Jones
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The beach at Coney Island was teeming with crocodiles, octopi and all manner of creatures — real and imaginary — Saturday morning as Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) and Astella Development Corporation staged its annual Coney Island Sand Sculpting Contest. Now in its 25th year, this year’s day-long festival featured 79 teams that tested their skills at shaping moistened sand and drew thousands of onlookers.

With piles of sand arranged on the beach in the early morning awaiting them upon their arrival, some participants were already at work on their creations well before the official start of the event. As a forecast of low humidity, light breeze and bright sun — conditions most beachgoers would crave! — can prove disastrous to sculpting sand, elaborate constructions like some of the contest’s massive sandcastles require abundant moisture to hold shape. So the early start is crucial. 

Among those at work on their creation early was “Team Russo” — Frank Russo and Joe Sloboda — whose efforts captured first place in the adult team category with an 8-foot tall Harry Potter-themed castle. No less diligently John O’Keefe, a past winner at the contest, got a head start on his three-towered sand castle, which took the prize in the adult individual category. 

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Though not competing in the contest, two sculptures by professional sand artists, pushing the limits of execution and detail, were erected near the boardwalk. Less castle than monument, these sponsor sculptures, created on behalf of Dunkin’ Donuts and the Coney Island Alliance, featured meticulous carving and much forethought, with their creators working from printed plans showing how the finished product would appear. 

A third non-competing sculpture stood close to the beach entrance, a tribute to the festival itself and its hosts, BCS and Astella. Tasked with the responsibility for crafting this showpiece, Long Island-based company Sand Sculpt USA executed a pyramidal design replete with high-relief lettering and adorned with a sculpture of a child making a sandcastle. 

While veteran artists, many of them repeat participants in the Coney Island contest, work from carefully preconceived designs, a majority of the participants gave free reign to their imagination, opting for a more improvisational approach. This strategy paid off, especially for the younger participants, with Ari Blumenthal and Sasha Cohen’s “Environmentalist” sculpture — an amalgamation of animal forms carved into a rounded dome of sand — won first place in the children’s group category. 

As for the unenviable job of deciding who among the children’s entries would garner the prize, that lot fell to special guest Katherine Cooksey, Miss New York. Amply qualified for her duties, Cooksey, who is completing an MFA at Pratt Institute in art history, works regularly with children with learning disabilities and special needs. About her criteria for judging the children’s entries, Cooksey explained that “most of the children I was looking at, it was their first time working with sand. So I’m more interested in what the back story was in going into creating what they were making.” 

Despite the competitiveness among some of the contestants, the Coney Island event remains true to its founding ideal. The first event in 1990 was organized as a fun, free family event. “Team Dragon,” which took home second prize in the mixed-age group category for its 10-foot wide slumbering dragon, comprised 11 members, ranging from 4 to 40 years old. Alma Johnson, mother of some of the children on the Coney Island-based team, explained that their team was organized simply as a way of gathering several friends and their children together for a day at the beach. 

Similarly, for James Bloom and his wife Amy, who recently moved to Brooklyn from Florida, sand sculpting is, according to James, a “marriage tradition” they’ve whiled away at for their nine years together. The couple spent the afternoon making one of the many octopi strewn throughout the contest area. 

After the awards ceremony ended, the tools and buckets were packed up, and as the participants mingled with friends and family, the endless cycle had begun anew: groups of children dismantling and altering (or demolishing) the completed sculptures to make their own. We learn this as children: With sand, permanence is impossible. Perhaps that is its greatest appeal and why it’s hard not to envision the sand sculpting contest’s endurance for years to come.

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