Sand castle artist Frank Russo is in his own world when he's creating one of his sculptures -- even in a public place.
"When I am building, everything else around me goes away," Russo says on a recent afternoon. His latest sand castle, probably the last of the summer, is a 3½-foot-tall tower with winding steps and craggy roofs. At work since 11:30 a.m., Russo is kneeling in the sand, etching the castle's exposed bricks with a spackling knife. His canvas for the past four hours: a busy stretch of beach at Robert Moses State Park, Field 2, in Babylon.
Pausing from his work, the congenial Russo talks to beachgoers who stop, gawk and snap cellphone photos of the nearly finished castle. And when waves begin to crash a few feet away, Russo assures a visitor there's no immediate threat to the fragile art piece. "We're at high tide," he says of the spot where the sand is being transformed.
Highly detailed, seemingly gravity-defying sand castles are a specialty of Russo, 54, of Fort Salonga. A trained carpenter who has been director of construction at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for the past two decades, Russo has earned a reputation building sand castles on Long Island and in Brooklyn. Today's structure is similar to one that earned him the $400 top prize in last year's Coney Island sand castle contest.
It was the third consecutive year that Russo won first place in the adult category. While maintaining his amateur status, he's also entered, and won, contests in Amagansett and at the Beach Hut at Meschutt Beach County Park in Hampton Bays. Russo couldn't defend his Coney Island title this year because the contest was scheduled the same day as his daughter's college graduation party.
Unlike those of artists working in bronze or marble, the tools of the sand sculptor are inexpensive and readily available. Russo has combed the beach to find many sand castle tools, such as the plywood he uses as a leveler and the slat he pried from a fence.
This is hardly child's play. For Russo and others who create sand sculptures on public beaches, it's an art form, however temporary. Artists who work in oils or stone can expect their creations to last, but sand art can disappear in minutes.
Russo takes four to six hours to construct his castles. Others often can take longer, depending on the size and complexity. Some are wrecked by wind, waves or thoughtless passersby. Some just cave in on themselves without any help from outside forces. On its highest level, sand castle building can earn artists awards and cash for commissioned works.
Russo began carving sand castles 14 years ago, in response to his wife's complaint that he was off windsurfing while his kids stayed behind on the beach. "They had sand toys, and I started pushing sand around," he recalls. But that was kid stuff.
In short time, he learned sand-sculpture techniques from professionals -- Andrew Gertler of Sea Cliff and Matt Long of Staten Island. He's talked shop with both men at the Coney Island contest, and then purchased their videos and sand tools.
Gertler, who has a home office in a Sea Cliff Victorian overlooking the water, admits to a childlike joy from his line of work. "I feel like a kid every time I do it. It's like you're playing in a sandbox," says Gertler, 52, owner of Sandsculpt USA, a team of professional sand sculptors. He got into sand castles in his 30s. "Before that, I restored musical instruments," he says.
At first he made sand castles just for fun. "I was going to Jones Beach and playing in the sand," Gertler recalls. After a year, he turned professional, eventually forming his own business. He calls what he does "the ephemeral arts."
Nowadays, Gertler makes a living carving sand sculptures for weddings, product launches, corporate events and picnics. At other times of the year, he works with ice and snow, and in October, switches to pumpkins, all for a fee.
"Sand is a quick medium that's inexpensive," Gertler says. "You can actually do classical art and make a living at it."
Prices vary for his work, but on average he charges about $1,000 for a sand castle. Gertler's recent projects have included a private party in the Hamptons, and for Fleet Week, he and his team created a 60-ton sculpture in Times Square, featuring an American flag, a jet, a helicopter and three servicemen. Sometimes, he donates his talent. Every year, he creates a 9/11 sculpture on Vesey Street in Manhattan in honor of firefighters.
In June, Gertler's oeuvre found an even wider audience. With Long, he joined an international group of sand castle artists co-hosting Sand Masters on the Travel Channel. They roam the world making sculptures. Long, a sand castle artist for a dozen years, the last nine professionally, is also known on Long Island. His work has been exhibited at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, and he created a 9/11 memorial in Long Beach, according to the Travel Channel's website. The two men collaborated two weeks ago on a cityscape in Manhattan's Foley Square, featuring recreations of the Chrysler and Flatiron buildings. It was knocked down by the city as soon as Gertler and Long finished carving it.
"Most of my artwork doesn't last more than a couple of weeks at best," Gertler says.
On the beach at Robert Moses, Russo says that he and his colleagues wage a constant, losing battle against the elements.
"The wind and the sun are the two enemies. The sun dries it out, and the wind takes it away," Russo explains. He keeps a spray bottle filled with water handy to keep the castle wet as he works under the midday sun.
Russo says beachgoers knock down most of his sand sculptures. On a family vacation two years ago in Palmas del Mar, Puerto Rico, he created a castle that lasted all of two days.
And sometimes he tempts fate by building below the high water mark, as he did a few weeks ago at Fire Island's Ocean Beach. The high tide took it down, as he knew it would. For his last sand sculpture of the summer, Russo lets a group of kids jump on the Harry Potter-like castle.
Gertler, however, has a dim view of people who take joy in destroying the works of others. He calls them "destroyers" and says, "That's not part of the fun for me." Gertler explains, "I put so much time and effort in, I don't jump on my own stuff, and I try to discourage kids from doing that." Instead, Gertler says, "I try to educate the destroyers into understanding what the creators actually do, and how much time and effort and emotion goes into these projects."
Emotions definitely play a part for these sand castle artists, who see parallels between the limitations of their artwork and life itself. And artists have different opinions about their sculptures disappearing.
"It's like the cycle of life," Russo explains of the rise and fall of the typical sand castle. "I know it's not permanent," he says. "That's why I enjoy it."