Paul Dawkins at work on a sand sculpture in front of Creston's Ramada Hotel.

Paul Dawkins at work on a sand sculpture in front of Creston's Ramada Hotel.

Sand sculptor brings ‘performance art’ to Creston’s Ramada

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  • Sep. 5, 2012 8:00 a.m.

Paul Dawkins didn’t start with a plan to spend much of his adult life making sculptures in sand.

“I like to tell people that the very beginning was when I was three years old, in a crib, reaching out between the bars for sand to mix,” he laughs.

The truth, though, is that he was an animation school student in San Diego, hanging out on a beach in San Blas, Mexico, north of Puerto Vallarta, and he “was bored silly.”

Let’s get on the beach and build something, he thought. Soon he was constructing a 20-foot dragon with coconuts for eyes.

“And I drew a wall of people, many of whom were asking questions.”

He liked the attention — “It’s performance art, really” — and soon he was learning more about sand as a medium. He started, like kids playing on the beach, using only his hands to pile up the sand, wet it and start making shapes.

It was in California in 1977 that Dawkins saw carvers packing sand into wood boxes.

“I was amazed at what they were doing,” he recalls.

For the last few weeks Dawkins has been working on a sand carving at the corner of highways 3 and 3A, a prime traffic spot provided by the Ramada Hotel and Conference Centre. It’s set under a rain-protected shelter and a common comment he has been faced with is, “I thought you were doing a sand sculpture — that looks like a wood sculpture.”

The “wood sculpture” was a weird stack of different sized plywood frames in which Dawkins was preparing sand to carve. Layers of sand are watered and tamped within each box as he gradually builds up a sculpting base that becomes more like sandstone than sand. A finished sculpture can be sprayed with a white glue and water mix that can help it last for months, he says.

Dawkins turned that early experience in San Blas into a career, becoming the world’s (as far as he knows) first full-time professional sand sculptor. Over the next four decades, he would go on to travel to 92 countries, often winning sand sculpting competitions and teaching the craft wherever he could.

“I got the idea to go to shopping malls and fairs, any pubic venue that has a lot of people.”

He patterned his career after musicians, who tour from city to city, performing.

“In the early days I would travel and stay in hostels,” he says. “In competitions, I would work alone, competing against teams of up to ten people. …

“I’m a really fast shoveler,” he laughs. “I always started out with the biggest pile of sand!”

The last 39 years haven’t been all sand, travel and bikinis for Dawkins, though. He’s also helped to pioneer snow-sculpting competitions and done ice carvings, too.

He credits his experience as a stop-action film animator and artistic background for the attention his carvings bring him. His creations are always designed to tell a story and give the appearance of movement.

Sand sculpting also brings out the competitor in him. In the early 1980s, he was part of a team of Californians that won a couple of team world championships and consistently finished in the medals in competitions. They eventually decided to become an all-California team and cut him loose.

“So later on I started another team and we beat them,” he laughs.

Canadians and Americans have traditionally been at the forefront of the sand sculpting competitive world, but European and, now, Chinese competitors have risen to the challenge.

Dawkins cites one of his most memorable experiences — of the 92 countries he has competed in 16 of them — as a 10-day competition in China that drew 10 million viewers over the course of the event.

“The Super Bowl wouldn’t compare as an event. It was a sea of people for the entire time.”

Dawkins didn’t abandon his early interest in film animation. He came to Creston in part to escape the experience of 10 years in Toronto, where he built up a company of 20 employees, creating special effects, props and TV character costumes.

“It really got too big for me. I felt like I was losing my edge as an artist, so now I’ve gone back to the roots of where I started.”

He talks of trying to settle down, but admits the lure of travel is a strong one.

“The best education is travelling, I think. It is very mind-opening.”

Dawkins believes art is an important component in economic development and has seen his performance art grow into a major attraction that draws tourists and motivates other artists to get involved.

As he works on what he describes as “my most detailed project yet” on the Ramada Hotel lot (with plans to add to his list of world records), Dawkins gets the chance to interact with visitors and encourage locals to pick up a carving tool and get involved. Sculpting gives him time to think, too. Travels in Third World, developing countries, have inspired him to work on ways to create low-cost, small-scale housing, using his artistic talents to make tiny homes attractive, as well as functional.

But that, he says, is a story for another day. Warm, sunny weather is time for Dawkins to immerse himself in a creative outlet that he describes as being equal parts fine, commercial and performing art.

The mounds of packed sand are ready to be transformed into complex, finely detailed stories that reflect his interest in communities and history, all with a whimsical bent that will allow return visitors to discover new details each time they view his creations.