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Grains of Inspiration

South Padre Island’s ever-evolving Sand Sculpture Trail
Written by Helen Anders. Photographs by Tim Burdick.

SouthPadreIsland SandSculptureTrail 0016On a spring day, Lucinda Wierenga—better known on South Padre Island as “Sandy Feet”—puts the finishing touches on a multi-turreted sand castle in front of the Taco Factory restaurant, only to watch a storm immediately blow the top off. Back to work goes the sand artist, undertaking yet another repair effort.

Sand Sculpting Classes

Sandy Feet and Andy Hancock offer lessons in building sand sculptures. Learn more at and, respectively.

The SPI Sand Sculpture Trail The trail runs along a five-mile stretch of South Padre Island and includes about 30 sand castles and other sculptures adorning the grounds of various businesses.

Free trail maps are available at Beach Bikes on Padre, the South Padre Island Visitor Center, and online at, where you can also download a free castle-finding app.

Sand sculpting is an ephemeral form of art. And yet, because the beach inspires creativity and provides the raw material, sand artists proliferate on South Padre Island. Even more arrive from all over the globe for Sand Castle Days, a festival and competition held the first weekend in October. The works of local and visiting sand artists make up one of South Padre’s most indigenous tourist attractions: the Sand Sculpture Trail.

“I’ve always thought of this as an Easter egg hunt,” says Sandy, who coordinates the trail. She lobbied the island’s Convention and Visitors Bureau board for two years until, in 2013, it officially blessed the Sand Sculpture Trail and set aside $20,000 in matching funds to pay sand artists for building and maintaining their works. (The rest comes from the businesses where the castles are constructed.) Another $5,000 was allocated in October for repairs and maintenance.

Many sculptures on the trail depict actual castles, while others take a cue from their island location. In front of the Suntide III condominium, a whimsical Neptune sits with a beach ball, petting a dolphin. At the headquarters of Sea Turtle, Inc., a turtle-conservation orga-nization, four sand-sculpted sea turtles swim among a seascape. At D’Pizza Joint, a surfer brandishes a pizza for delivery. At the Travelodge, owls perch amid castle spires.

Sandy Feet cites the sand sculpture at a bookstore called Paragraphs on Padre Boulevard as one of her favorites to work on. Store owner Joni Montover “gave me a lot of freedom,” the artist says. The fanciful sculpture features literary characters from The Cat in the Hat, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Where The Wild Things Are, and other tales.

Most of the sculptures are by Sandy Feet or fellow South Padre sand artist Andy Hancock, who sculpted the trail’s largest work—a labyrinth of castles with sea turtles, a pelican, an owl, and other creatures—at the South Padre Island Visitor Center. Some 15 feet tall, 22 feet wide, and 11 feet deep, the sculpture amazes visitors who’ve stopped to gather brochures.

“You see a three-year-old standing next to it, and the dad’s mouth will be open like the three-year-old’s,” says Hancock, who built the sculpture with river sand, which has higher clay content than beach sand, so it’s easier to sculpt.

The sculpture gets a daily spray of a diluted glue mixture to keep it stable, a typical preservation technique for sand sculptures. The process hardens the sculpture against the elements, but very high winds, driving rain—and destructive hands and feet—can damage the art. The artists say they’re glad vandalism doesn’t happen too often. “If you can’t fix them, you shouldn’t build them,” Hancock says. “I don’t worry about damage. I see it as an opportunity, because it gives me a chance to do something new.”

Because parking on South Padre Island is free and plentiful (with the exception of Spring Break and busy event weekends such as Labor Day), it’s easy to take a car tour of the sites. But biking is more fun. Sandy Feet occasionally leads bicycle tours of the Sand Sculpture Trail, or you can craft your own by renting a bike at Beach Bikes on Padre, where trail maps are available. The maps don’t say which sculptor created which piece—a few are from sculptors visiting from as far away as Singapore and the Netherlands. Sandy Feet considers the entire trail a community effort.

What makes an artist want to sculpt in sand? Start with a love for the beach, and add curiosity and creativity.

“I was a high school English teacher, and I met Amazin’ Walter (McDonald, one of the island’s first sand sculptors). He showed me how to make a dribble castle,” Sandy says. “I wasn’t enjoying life at that point and was searching around for something else to do. I found that what I really enjoyed was spending time on the beach, building sand castles.”

She honed her sand-sculpting abilities to the point that she now travels to world-championship competitions—seven in the past year, including in Spain and Qatar—and has been commissioned by tourism officials in locations as far away as Kuwait and the Bahamas to create art in their native sands. She also teaches sand sculpting, as does Hancock.

A native of Australia, Hancock was primarily a wood sculptor when, at an ice-sculpting competition in Finland, he ran into a sand sculptor who advised him to check out the scene in South Padre Island. Hancock attended Sand Castle Days in 2002, married a local the next year, and never looked back.

“I love the creation part,” he says. “I believe all art should be free. If it brings a smile to somebody’s face, you’ve done your job properly.”

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