CONEY ISLAND — Lions, mermaids and even a giant brain were amongst the granular creations competing for top prize at the 23rd annual Coney Island sand sculpture competition on Saturday.
The artists —some specially trained and others with only a vivid imagination — started early Saturday morning, laboring over their sculptures to transform the virgin sand into vine covered castle towers or exotic creatures.
For veteran competitors like Frank Russo, of Northport, Long Island, it is a true labor of love. He and his family set up at 8 a.m. to be ready for the noon kickoff of the competition. Russo even wore a water pack strapped to his hip so he could sip from its long tube without breaking his concentration.
“We have been building sand castles for nearly thirty years now,” said his wife, Lari Russo. “In the past my husband competed as a single adult, but last year was the first we started to compete as a family.”
In fact, he's only taken one year off. In 2011, he and his wife went on vacation for their 30th anniversary.
This year they were joined by their daughter Nicole, 27, who had come from Washington, D.C. especially for the event. A couple of family friends also lent a hand completed their team.
Russo, the director of facilities at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories and a trained draftsman, said he doesn’t come with a plan, he builds whatever he is inspired to build.
This year, he constructed an artfully crumbling castle tower, complete with gardens and rockscape. But this is no average sand castle: it is more than four feet high and about five feet across.
Russo started by taking the sand and making “a kind of mudpie” using copious amounts of water pumped in especially for the occasion. The sand was then formed into cylinders using large plastic molds made out of paint buckets, and the sculpture carved out of the hardened sand with the same tools a conventional sculptor might use.
“Coney Island sand is actually the best sand around, because it is smaller, finer, and flatter than the rest of the sand around here,” said Russo. “It means it sticks together better, and allows you to get more height on your build.”
The Russos worked on their creation for nearly six hours.
“The last hour is the most intense,” said Lari. “That is when all the finer detail has to go in and then you have to keep the whole thing moist all the time to stop it crumbling. It is a challenge!”
Just next to the Russo’s was relative newcomers Tim O’Keefe, Rich Demand, and John Alberga. The three friends had also come in from Long Island for the day. Last year was their first year at the competition, but they have been building together for several years for fun. They make all their own tools out of stainless steel so that the sand and salt don’t corrupt the metal.
They didn’t win any prizes last year, but this time Alberga felt confident they had the advantage with their creation: a giant castle complex called Merlin’s Castle, complete with a miniature garden and American flag decoration.
“We did well last year but we weren’t finished by the time the judges came round,” said Alberga. “This year, looking around, I think we are more in the running to take something home.”
Fifty competitors were vying for a prize. There was a $400 cash prize for first place, $200 for second place, and $100 for third place. The event is put on by the Coney Island Alliance and co-sponsored by the Astella Development Corporation, National Grid, and New York Aquarium. The competition is not what it is all about, said Coney Island Alliance member Johanna Zaki.
“This is a family day and a family event, and this year we have had a phenomenal turn out,” she said.
One young participant had gone the extra mile and turned herself into a living sculpture. Skylar Kiernan, 13, was turned into a sand mermaid by her friend Kate Reddin, 13, and had even carved scales into her tail using a plastic cup as a cutting tool. It was the girls’ first year at the competition.
“I can’t believe I am the only person to be a living sculpture!” said Skylar, looking around from her seat in the sand.
At least Skylar was well entertained despite being anchored to one place. There was live music provided by local bands and deejays to keep participants in good spirits.
Lari Russo said she expected the party to go on all night.
“What ever we win or don’t, it is just the most fun you can have,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to spend all day in the sand and sun with their family? I love it.”