THE heat is nearly unbearable and it’s not yet 10am. The sky is so blue a casual glance hurts the eyes, a slight breath of wind tickles tree leaves before vanishing, and sweat is beading on the shaded brows of Andy Moss and Jamie Wardley as they contemplate the mountain of sand in front of them.
It is so abnormally hot for an Edinburgh July day that it’s easy to imagine the sudden appearance of a young John Mills in grubby army fatigues, clambering over the top of the massive dune, gasping for an ice cold beer.
But it’s too early for that – and the sandmen have a lot of work ahead of them if their three-and-a-half-metre sculpture for Edinburgh Zoo, complete with panda, rhino, chimp, penguin and koala, is to be completed by tomorrow.
Around 60 tonnes of builders’ sand was dumped on the lawn in front of the zoo’s historic Mansion House last week as work on the giant sand creation commenced. A further 30 tonnes was also left to be transformed into a 12-metre “beach in the city” with parasol shades, deckchairs and children’s bucket and spades as part of the zoo’s 100-year birthday celebrations.
Since last Thursday, Jamie and two others from his Sand in Your Eye company compacted the sand into tiers in preparation for carving, and when Andy arrived on Monday – fresh from creating a sand version of the Isle of May complete with hundreds of puffins at the East Neuk Music Festival – the artistry began in earnest.
Sand sculpting is an art form which most people first gawp at when on holiday abroad, but it’s a growing trend in Britain with annual competitions now held on the beaches of Morecambe and Weston- Super-Mare. Jamie and Andy are experts in making people’s imaginary creations come to life. They even use buckets and spades, though the kind you might find on a building site rather than a beach.
And if they’ve not got enough to contend with thanks to the sun – as it means more water needs to be used to keep the sand moist enough to be sculpted – then there’s the overnight vandalism.
“We lost the rhino’s horn last night,” laughs Jamie, putting down his trowel with which he was carving a panda nostril. “I think it was either a badger or a fox. We’ve certainly had both taking an interest – the fox leaves scratch marks all the way up, it must be using it as a look-out point. We’re going to need to put sensors in to keep them away if it’s going to last.”
Jamie, from Bradford, got into sand sculpting by accident. He says: “I had studied environmental protection but I was on holiday in Norway and saw a guy doing this and he asked me if I wanted to give it a go and he seemed to think I had some talent, so I thought why not try it back home? I was always painting and drawing so I had a creative interest, too. So I started out back in 2005 and it’s grown from there.
“What we’re doing here is a medium-sized sculpture – we’ve done some which are far, far bigger. We’ve got a 100, and it will be surrounded by the animals and we’ll get the words ‘Edinburgh Zoo’ on there, too.
“We’re working on it about eight hours a day and we work from pictures, though being here it’s great that we can just go and look at the actual animals for inspiration.”
He adds: “The panda is quite difficult, because it’s an animal identified by it’s colour markings, which is hard to realise in the sand which is all the same tone. So I’ve had to make the white sections very, very smooth, and the black sections have a rougher texture.”
Round the other end, Andy is “blocking out” the rhino’s armoured hide. “The texture of it’s skin is very interesting, but should be easy enough to replicate,” he says. “We use tools which could come from a building site – spirit levels, trowels, spades, skimmers like plasterers use. We even knock in metal pegs to use as markers so we don’t forget where we’re at, and they come out later. Some people think there must be something inside the sculpture holding it together, but it’s just sand.”
Andy, who has a degree in sculpture, says that what he likes most about sand is the speed.
He says: “We’ll do this in four days – we once made Rhyl Castle in a day. There’s something magical about being able to make something so quickly from this material.
“And I’m not concerned about it not lasting – there are always photos. I think it’s great that this kind of art is out there and people can see it, rather than shut away inside a gallery.”
As they work, the public gather round the fence to watch. One gran says to her grandson “maybe you could do that with your dad at the beach?” He looks doubtful. Jamie says he should be.
“Beach sand is very different. The grains of silica are rounded because they’ve been washed by the sea for years, so while you can sculpt when the sand is wet, as soon as it dries, it collapses like snooker balls rolling off one another.
“What we use here is quarry sand – it’s been donated by Angle Park Sand and Gravel in Fife – and it also includes clay and silts so the grains are more angular and stick together better, so it’s more like making something with bricks. That’s why it lasts too.”
The pair are also being filmed while they work for BBC’s One Show, and they’ll also be on Portobello beach on Friday to do some beach sand sculpting. Says Jamie: “Sand sculptures are very versatile. We can create something in a week that would take a year in a medium like stone.”
YEAR OF EVENTS FOR A SPECIAL BIRTHDAY
EDINBURGH Zoo opened in 1913, so to celebrate its centenary year the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has planned a year’s worth of birthday events – of which the sand sculpture and beach are just one element.
Already there’s a historical exhibition about the zoo’s colourful past being held at the Budongo Trail house, while a host of lectures about the work of the Edinburgh institution are ongoing. All this month, 100 prizes are being given away, including keeper experiences, a personal panda viewing, animal adoptions and memberships.
In October, Lee Durrell, honorary director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, will give a lecture on Saving Species from Extinction, while BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan will also give a talk on his work with animals.
ONLY LIMIT IS YOUR IMAGINATION
SAND sculptures of temples, palaces or cartoon characters have been popping up on foreign shores for some years, but in Britain there are still only a handful of artists working at the seaside or creating one-off spectaculars, such as the Edinburgh Zoo sculpture.
And while they might take a little more work than your average bucket-and-spade sand castle, the only limitation is your imagination. Jamie and Andy have re-created Rhyl Castle on the shores of the Welsh town, a Mayan temple, Big Ben, scenes from Greek mythology, Egyptian goddesses, Gollum from Lord of the Rings and Spongebob Squarepants.
They’ve also worked with the RSPB to build an artificial sand bank for a colony of sand martins in Newark as part of a quarry regeneration project.