Sandman Delivers Dreamy Sculptures on LBI to France

By SANDRA WEYANT | Jul 05, 2017
Supplied Photo

Retired Atlantic City firefighter Matthew Deibert always had a passion for art, and once he awakened his sand-sculpting talent, there was no stopping him. After earning a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in graphic design from Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania, Deibert pursued a career as a graphic artist for an advertising agency. He also devoted 25 years of service to the Atlantic City Fire Department, where he met a man named John Dowdy who introduced him to the world of sand sculpting.

Deibert recalls sitting at Dowdy’s kitchen table while having a cup of coffee, and the moment he saw photos from one of Dowdy’s recent sculpting events, he thought, “Damn, I have to do that.” When his buddy asked if he was up for the challenge, Deibert accepted without hesitation. In 2000, Dowdy hired Deibert for the very next job on his agenda.

“I picked it up quickly and fortunately, soon after, I was able to start competing at some really high-level events with John as a teammate, and then I started sculpting on my own and competing against John. It’s been a fun rivalry for several years now,” Deibert said.

So, how does one construct a sculpture from millions of tiny particles? Deibert knows all the tricks and tactics to create breathtaking works of art that are sure to be ingrained in one’s mind and heart long after they’re gone. If an event takes place at the beach, Deibert utilizes that sand, instead of having to transport excessive loads of sand to a facility, and then packs it with the ocean water.

Before sculpting, artists begin with a mound of sand packed into the shape they need – usually round or square forms. The goal is to retain the sand from shifting outward. To prevent this from happening, sculptors use a hand tamper or gas-powered compactor.

“We call it the ‘pound-up,’ and that is always done in the beginning, unless you have a big pile and you are going to carve something flat, like a logo. You just use the height of the pile and wet it and carve the letters out,” Deibert said. Contrary to popular belief, sculptors start at the top and work their way down to complete a project. Starting at the top prevents granules of sand from falling into the design that was already carved.

“If you can imagine a birthday cake, large scale, sometimes our pound-ups look like that, different layers that you can actually stand on and work while a band is holding it together on the sides. It’s almost like scaffolding,” he said. For example, if a sculpture is 10 feet tall and there are five 2-foot bands around it, an artist can stand on the second or third layer and then take the bands on the above layers off to work. “Otherwise, if you don’t start that way, you can’t get back up to the top,” Deibert said.

For client events – birthday parties, weddings, conventions or festivals – Deibert sketches the design ahead of time to conceptualize the sculpture. Once the drawing is approved, he can get right to work.

“There is a lot of artistic freedom when it comes to carving sand, so I can incorporate different elements while I am sculpting that weren’t in the original drawing,” Deibert said. Even though he sculpts from time to time in the sandbox in his backyard, he tends to practice and hone his skills while completing a particular job.

Deibert defines the most difficult aspect of carving as getting the sand where it needs to go “logistically.” It is a nerve-wracking process to remove the bands from a sculpture as well, because there is always a risk of it collapsing, which has only occurred a few times throughout his 17-year career. Sometimes, sand shifting in a sculpture can actually enhance the look, if it falls just in the right place at the right time.

With the proper equipment, setting and his broad imagination, Deibert can bring any image to life, evoking a realistic scene and emotional response from spectators. Typically, Deibert uses 10 tools for every sculpture, but has five favorites, including rulers, levels, cake decorating utensils, artistic palette knives commonly used for mixing paint and smaller tools for fine lettering. Each tool is made out of stainless steel to prevent rusting.

“I like to carve things for birthday parties. The kids always love it. This is one hobby/occupation that you can have fun with and entertain people and interact with them. It is performance art, really. It’s a whole different thing when you have an active sculpture being built versus attending an event and the sculpture is completed already. It’s better to see the person working on it,” Deibert said.

In terms of competitions, most themes are open and artists can choose any subject matter, as long as it is appropriate for a family event. For Deibert, contests serve as his forum to inspire the audience with a meaningful sculpture. “Personally, I am very involved with my church and I just know that this is a talent that is God-given and I’m using it to bring pleasure to people on the beach, but with contests, I will usually pick biblical themes to leave a powerful message on the sand,” he said.

Every September, Deibert attends the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach, and guests love him and “look forward to the biblical pieces.” In the World Championships of 2002, Deibert sculpted Moses parting the Red Sea and won. Last year, he carved a piece titled “The Miracle of Life” after his son Ian’s wife had a baby girl named Rose. She was born right before Deibert left for the contest, and he sculpted all of the stages of conception and even included a rose and her birthdate into the design. “I do things that are meaningful to me, but also impact others,” he said.

Sculpting is an enjoyable activity for Deibert, but it can also be an extremely rewarding and, at times, emotional experience. He has traveled all over the world, and one of his most memorable events occurred in 2004 when he ventured to Normandy, France with five other artists – John Dowdy being one of them – to carve soldiers in honor of the 50th anniversary of D-Day. “Most of the veterans that were over there were in their 80s and they traveled for what will probably be their last visit. They gave their accounts of what happened and it was truly heart-wrenching. They told us as if they had lived it yesterday. It was one of the first times I traveled far and carved on another country’s soil and I’ll never forget it,” he said.

On a more positive note, as a true family man, Deibert is ecstatic that his two sons, Ian and Matthew, are passionate about sand sculpting, as well. One of his career highlights will always be the time he and his elder son Ian, who is also very artistic, competed four years ago on a reality TV series called “Sand Wars.” Their team name was “Sand and Son,” and they were fortunate to take home the grand prize of $10,000.

Deibert recently completed a week-long event, Wawa Welcome America, a celebration leading up to Independence Day, at Liberty Place in Philadelphia. He and Dowdy, who now lives in Italy, transported 40 tons of sand to the rotunda to carve a sculpture of Philadelphia icons and symbols: Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin and the Declaration of Independence, while also including different logos for event sponsors. Sculptures are usually removed after several days, but the Philadelphia icons sculpture will remain erect for the entire month of July.

Along with the hundreds of temporary fixtures Deibert has created, he also has three “permanent” sculptures he updates every once in a while. One is located at the Smithville Inn in Galloway and is protected by an awning so it does not get rained on. Heavy rainfall can make watermarks, or pits, in the sculpture, especially on a new piece.

“For the most part, it can handle light rain because part of the process of sculpting includes wetting the sand anyway. We are picky with our sand, though. We want the crystals to have flat edges and we want it to be fine and have a little bit of silt in it. That’s our ideal sand,” Deibert said.

Deibert has two sculptures on Long Beach Island, one in front of a restaurant and one at Fantasy Island amusement park. “I have been doing that job (Fantasy Island) for seven or eight years, but it is finished now. We plan for a time period of three consecutive sunny days and the sand has a little silt in it, so it actually bakes in the sun and preserves its shape and makes it hard,” Deibert said. For extra protection, he also puts Elmer’s glue and water in a spray bottle and coats the outside of the sculpture several times and lets it bake and set in the sun more. With a couple of layers of glue, the sculpture will actually repel the rain. “They usually knock it down around Thanksgiving every year, and I re-pack the sand and get to it again.”

Now that Deibert has retired from the fire department, he devotes one to two days a week to carving. His next event is on July 3-4 in Monmouth County, and Ian, Matthew and John Dowdy will each have their own piles alongside him.

Even though Deibert enjoys playing with sand, he does not like to play particular sports in the sand. “I like to play golf, but it’s the only place I want to stay out of the sand,” he joked.

To see more of Deibert’s beautiful sand creations, visit sandcreation.com.

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