Fragile masterpieces: That’s the way the carvings crumble

Times Staff Writer

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. -- The Pacific Ocean crashing behind him, Greg LeBon tied on his Husky tool belt crammed with chisels, plastic straws and a blush brush big enough to coat a whole cheek. He stared at the sand.

It had been soaked and raked, and the sun had dried it. Now LeBon and his nine teammates had five hours to chisel it into a 7-foot-tall coral reef and bug-eyed fish.

LeBon’s Orange County sand sculpting team, Archisand, is among Southern California’s best, having earned top honors here at the U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition five times in seven years as they went into this year’s contest.


The team has shaped sand into a poker party and a Hogwarts Castle, with no glue or cement to make the grains stick together.

The beach is where LeBon, a 48-year-old architect, can unleash the creativity he rarely uses while haggling over a project’s cost or timetable. On the sand, he is as captivated as a 10-year-old with a pail and shovel, and companies pay thousands of dollars for him to play.

He has crossed the Pacific to build a princess-worthy castle in Japan. He helped dot Corona del Mar with more than 90 tiki heads. He built a large sandbox in his Aliso Viejo backyard and, when he was moving to Mission Viejo, sculpted in it “For Sale.”

At this summer’s 27th annual U.S. Open, LeBon’s group planned to carve a roller coaster crashing through a wall of coral and fish. Its cars would carry a penguin and an octopus whose eyes were bulging with fear.

An air horn blared, and LeBon and his teammates bounded onto the sand and began shoveling and flinging sand into what they hoped would be a masterpiece, if only for an hour.

As a kid in the South Bay, LeBon built mini-cities, but with Lincoln Logs. Not until he was studying architecture at the University of Oregon in the early 1980s did the shoreline beckon.

On a whim, he and some buddies entered a competition nearby. They chiseled a Mayan pyramid and won. They entered the world championships in White Rock, B.C. They won again. The $1,000 prize paid for lodging and beer. LeBon was hooked.

In 1983, LeBon met Todd Vander Pluym, who was dazzling gawkers at Huntington Beach with his complex medieval turrets. Most sand artists were working the coastal contest circuit, but Vander Pluym realized that his oceanfront hobby could pay his rent.

LeBon happily tagged along to corporate parties and malls. While working full time as an architect, he traveled to Kamaishi City, Japan, to help lure tourists with a “Sleeping Beauty” castle as big as a football field. He bounced between Treasure Island, Fla., and Pacific Beach, Calif., as the towns each hired the same sculptors to build the world’s largest sand city.


After an hour, the sun burned through Imperial Beach’s clouds. LeBon’s team, occasionally trading high fives but few complete sentences, was pounding hard, packing the sand that was to become the centerpiece of its underwater roller coaster in a 30-by-30-foot sand patch.

The chosen creation was the result of months of debate.

This year, LeBon toyed with sending a message about global warming until his teammates reminded him that it’s hard for judges to warm to tombstones and skulls. So LeBon rummaged through his “sand ideas” file to find a sunnier theme.

He found inspiration in ceramic koi and a “Finding Nemo” lamp, and sketched the sea coaster. The team crammed into the sand parcel, encircled with 60 buckets for hauling water, two kiddie pools for storing it and half a dozen spray bottles for squirting it.

The group wrapped the sides of the sand piles with liners used in swimming pools. They drenched the piles with saltwater -- sand’s hair spray -- and delicately whittled the coaster tracks and coral stalks. Amid the poking and scraping, it seemed as if the entire piece would tumble. They blew away excess sand with plastic straws.

Though the sun was reddening noses, the team toiled in black shirts -- except for a team member who had stripped to her black bikini. LeBon’s straw hat helped little: Sweat matted his salt-and-pepper hair and slicked his forehead. Onlookers speculated that the team was molding the sand into an eel, a railroad, a whale or a snowman.

At the next plot, archrival and former U.S. Open champs I.B. Posse had shaped its own piles into bulbous heads with pointy ears and square snouts. The emerging piece -- “3 Little Pigs: The Revenge” -- drew oohs and ahs. For a minute, LeBon crept away to peek at his rival.


LeBon cobbled together his team in the early ‘90s, but it took years for them to reach championship level. Then LeBon met his wife, Kathy, who was flummoxed when the pastor who introduced them said that LeBon sculpted sand.

He dragged her -- and often their now-teenage kids, Pam and Alex -- from contest to contest. After the couple married in 2000, Kathy LeBon realized: “Wait a minute. I married a carny.”

But as her husband fiddled one day in his backyard sand pit, Kathy, trained in theatrical makeup, stared at his rendering of the Roman god Neptune. “He looks like the Cowardly Lion,” she told him.

That year at the U.S. Open, Kathy carved Neptune’s growl, and for the first time, Archisand won.

With Kathy LeBon pushing her husband to practice, the team racked up victories. That fueled the couple’s enthusiasm. When she ran for the Capistrano Unified School District board, LeBon touted her candidacy by spelling their last name on San Clemente’s shore.

Last year, LeBon and a teammate appeared on the Travel Channel program “Sand Blasters,” a two-day event in which sculptures were blown up and the sand formed into something new. Though LeBon’s Chrysler Building toppled early on, the show was a rare moment of sand celebrity. Usually, admiration comes in small doses.

Like when LeBon -- a director of design for the hotel and convention center at L.A. Live, a downtown Los Angeles entertainment complex -- tucks sand sculpture photos into his architecture portfolio. Inevitably, he said, prospective clients “go cuckoo,” calling to co-workers to come look.


At the Imperial Beach contest, three minutes remained. Just south of LeBon’s parcel, one team made a skeleton grasping a scythe engraved with “WAR.” Another team flanked its wedding cake with “YOU’RE INVITED” for the nuptials of two members.

LeBon was digging frantically. The deeper the hole the more easily judges could imagine the coaster’s ups and downs. “Walk in a circle!” LeBon told a teammate. “Criticize it!” Two minutes to go.

The sea creatures were spritzed with water. Some teammates raked the plot’s corners and smoothed them with their hands. “What can I do?” a team member yelled. “Tell me!” One minute.

LeBon kept digging and digging until time had elapsed.

When the results of the master class were announced, the crowd hushed. Third place went to a group whose handiwork was named “Aqua Beatles.” Now, second place. LeBon braced himself.

I.B. Posse. “3 Little Pigs.”

LeBon’s teammates wasted few minutes on handshakes and cheers -- they rushed to photograph their roller coaster. It would soon collapse. Not from wind, not from waves. From a mob of children near the parcel’s edge. This happens every year to every sculpture, but LeBon yelled to the kids: “Save it! Save it!”

Within seconds, they smashed the penguin. Then the octopus crumbled.