Sand sculpting began on the beaches of Atlantic City, back in the days when passersby on the Boardwalk would toss pennies at hard-working sculptors in derby hats.
So, it was fitting that the 2013 World Championships of Sand Sculpting returned to Atlantic City this week to showcase the work of 20 international artists, skilled in the ways of sand.
John Gowdy, a noted sand sculptor and retired Atlantic City fire captain, said his native city "is the best place for professional sand sculpture. We are bringing the art form back. I think the guys in derbies and suits are looking down on us with a little smile."
A warrior draped herself with her pet dragon, an old man and baby peered out from the same unwrapped head, first-woman Eve offered beachgoers a tempting apple, and an all-watching eye peered from a forced-perspective castle.
One entry, by Sudarsan Pattnaik, of India, was entitled "Don't Smoke, Save Life," and featured a four-faced man surrounded by a tobacco haze. A passing jokester asked if someone could get a picture of him lighting up in front of it.
Jeff Strong, from Washington state, was proud of his entry, "Dream Weaver," a difficult piece that involved carving an intricate web in the middle of a loop.
"I'm amazed it's still standing," Strong said. "It's gravitationally challenged. ... I love making things that are beautiful. I like to do the impossible. So many sand sculptures are pyramids. I like to put space in my compositions."
Other sculptors appreciated the difficulty. Strong's work won the Sculptor's Choice prize, awarded by his fellow competitors.
Another artist was Atlantic City Fire Capt. Matthew Deibert, of Galloway Township, who trained under Gowdy - and was decked out in the derby, white shirt and slacks of his Atlantic City forebears.
His entry, "Literacy Lives On," was a tribute to his sister, Anne Bastianelli-Lofaro, a longtime teacher and administrator in the Atlantic City Public Schools who died of cancer last month.
"It's dear to my heart, this one," Deibert said. "The first side of the piece is my father reading to my sister. The other side is her on her bed reading. We had a large family - eight brothers and sisters - and she was always off on her bed reading."
Deibert has traveled a lot for his passion, he said. "But to have it come to Atlantic City, it's a dream come true."
The winner of the $2,500 first prize was Karen Fralich, of Ontario, Canada, for "Amazon's Pet," a minutely detailed sculpture of an armored woman and her dragon.
Second place went to Carl Jara, of Cleveland, for his work "Goddess," which consisted of an abstract, sleeping woman sliced apart into several, matching pieces.
Third place went to David Ducharme of British Columbia, Canada, for his work "Folded Man."
Of course, visitors to the free exhibition all had their own favorites.
"My daughter really loves the mermaid," said Sheldon Villa, of Newark, of his daughter, Madison, 4. "And I like the sandcastle. It's very artistic."
As for his own skills, on a scale of 1 to 10, he would go with 0.
"Not even close to that," he joked. "Their imaginations are way beyond mine."
Austin Dooley, of City Island, New York, said his twin daughters, Megan and Emma, 4, were "very impressed" with a sandcastle he built Sunday, though that could not be confirmed by the girls.
"I made a master castle," he joked. "I could have put it on display, but I didn't want to ruin it for anyone else."
For some, their castle building days were still to come.
"We haven't started yet," said Melissa Sauers, of Sewell, Gloucester County, pointing to her 4-month-old son, Gavin. "Maybe next year we'll give it a try."
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