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Sand artist shares trade secrets for SandFest creations

Sand artist Fred Mallett of Port Aransas works on one of two massive sand sculptures for this weekend's SandFest on Mustang Island. Staff photo

Sandfest begins on Friday, but now is the time to be out on the beach watching as sand artists scrape, shape and sculpt an inherently friable substance into stone-like structures and mystical creatures. It's the ephemeral aspect of sand sculpting that attracts Port Aransas artist Fred Mallett to the discipline.

"I like the temporary nature of this form of art," Mallett said. "It's all about the creation process. It's performance art. People come by time and again to watch a piece take shape. That's why we don't tell people what it's going to be — and because we might change our minds."

A crew of up to nine people have been working with Mallett this week lugging buckets of sand, water and a combination of both to form two hulking sculptures at this year's annual SandFest in Port Aransas. The festival, which is a qualifying contest for the World Championship of Sand Sculpture in Florida this summer, is April 11-13. More than 100,000 people are expected on Mustang Island this weekend to watch some 18 master sculptors create solid forms out of ethereal grains of sand.

Mallett, who's very name sounds like a sculpting tool, uses clay carving implements, masonry trowels and construction diggers to, "wet it, pack it and carve it." Another indispensable tool of the trade comes in white plastic squirt bottles. Some call it protein-based adhesive. Mallett calls it school glue and he waters it down 8 parts water to 1 part glue to build a moisture barrier between his work and the corrosive winds. He assures that the glue is no threat to the environment.

"It's water soluble," he says. "Third graders eat it. And it certainly doesn't take long to disappear."

While a mist of glue water keeps carved details sharper longer, it certainly doesn't preserve the artwork beyond a few days time — at least not for the pieces carved out of the Port Aransas coast line. Most of Mallett's work — or materials — never need fear a burst of salty sea spray, however. He trucks in manufactured sand to corporate events, festivals and parties nowhere near the shore.

Mallett shapes sand professionally all over the world, providing entertainment along with massive works of art that are flattened and hauled off as soon as the last round of applause dies down. That's the beauty of sand sculpture, he says. It's in the creation, not the destruction, something he never sticks around to see.

"I don't want to preserve it," Mallett said, adding that despite the amount of physical labor involved, sand sculpture is a lot easier than other forms of sculpture.

"You build very large, impressive pieces of work in a few days," he said. "To do that amount of work on stone or wood would be a huge amount of labor over a long period of time. Also, with sand, you don't have to store it, sell it or take it apart. You just walk away."

Before Mallett and his crew pack up their tools and leave history to the winds, make plans to spend your weekend in Port Aransas at the SandFest. For more information, visit the SandFest website. You can learn more about Mallett and his art on his website as well.

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