Going With the Grains
Rusty Croft has constructed a career – and a Travel Channel program – out of sand.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Imagine for a second a sculpture of the Tower of Babel. It rises from the earth on a massive base decorated with ancient Mesopotamian designs. In the middle, a tapering, round structure spirals upward like an architectural layer cake as tiny workers roll boulders up its many levels to build ever higher.
The entire installation swirls almost 30 feet up in the air, climbing precariously toward the heavens like it’s just waiting for God to knock it back down as in the famous Biblical tale.
Now imagine that same sculpture is made entirely out of sand.
Such an impressive feat of artistry and engineering approaches impossible, but it’s just another day on the job for Rusty Croft. The Carmel resident is living a sandcastle-building dream, traveling the world to construct stunning creations for corporate parties, promotional events and the occasional marriage proposal. And in June, he got his own television show, too: a Travel Channel program based around his globe-trotting, sand-sculpting lifestyle.
Croft began his career using more conventional artistic materials, but a chance encounter 14 years ago inspired him to take things in a new direction.
“I saw a professional sand sculpture at the San Diego Zoo and it captured my imagination,” Croft says. “It did to me what I hope I do to people now.”
Originally from the plains of Iowa, Croft hadn’t seen anyone shape sand on a grand scale – he hadn’t even attended a Great Sandcastle Contest in Carmel. He offered free labor to the group behind the zoo sculpture.
“They said, ‘Great, but… ’,” Croft remembers. “So I bought 10 tons of sand and made my first sculpture, took pictures and wrote them a letter.”
He heard back eight months later when he and 87 other sculptors were invited to work on a then-record-breaking attempt to create the world’s largest sand sculpture: a 67-foot tall, 20-acre recreation of the lost city of Atlantis on Fiesta Island in San Diego.
Today Croft describes sculpting as an “instant love” that feels “completely natural,” but it did demand adjustments.
“The biggest challenge is the mind set,” he says. “The idea of spending days or weeks sculpting something that can fall down so quickly can be daunting.”
However, these types of hazards also keep the job exciting.
“The sand we work with is always different, so you need to learn to read the sand: How much water does it need? How vertical or overhanging will it go before collapse?” he says.
In many ways, creating a sand sculpture emulates the process of carving one out of marble. The artists put wet fine-grain sand into a square wooden form and use a machine to compact it tightly. These palettes are stacked to make a large, pyramidal “slab” from which they can mold their vision.
“The secret is keeping it wet,” Croft says. “Water, water, water. The surface tension is what keeps it together.”
Sculptors use their hands and everyday objects to transform the mound. Croft says his toolbox consists of items such as spoons, a butter knife, a trowel and a “beefed-up popsicle stick.”
Though sand sculpting seems best suited for an afternoon at the shore, Croft mostly works at events for companies like Google, Facebook and Boeing.
“Rarely do we work on the beach,” he admits. “Not a lot of beaches have very good sand for sculpting, so we have to bring sand when we work there.”
The complicated technical process and breathtaking final results are on full display in Sand Masters, Travel Channel’s new reality show following Rusty and his team as they complete projects in locations around the world.
“What we loved is not only that he’s a skilled sculptor, but a great personality,” says Executive Producer David E. Gerber. “He’s so expressive and brings a sense of fun and childlike enthusiasm.”
First season highlights range from a traditional Maori design for a tribal festival in New Zealand to a scene depicting LEGO Darth Vader, Yoda and friends for the opening of a new Star Wars-themed attraction at LEGOLAND.
“The travel part of it is really cool, because it’s a cultural exchange as well,” Croft says. “Sand is everywhere; that’s what draws people to it. Everyone has a memory of playing with sand.”
Still, it’s the opportunity to learn from his art that Croft relishes most.
“There’s so many metaphors for life,” he says. “Letting go, trying something new, working hard, putting your heart and soul into something even though you know it’s not going to last forever. Sometimes playing in the sand is a lot more than just playing in the sand.”
Sand Masters airs 7pm Sundays on Travel Channel.