RICHMOND — The volcanic sand Joe Castillo works with is dark and fine, like a black talcum powder that glides over the light screen and produces image after image.
It shimmers over the light box at Castillo's house, as his fingers whirl through swooshes and stipples and lines that ultimately take shape as the Virgin Mary.
Before he gained national exposure by appearing on America's Got Talent during the summer of 2012, Castillo had already been making a living telling sand stories since 2005. He partners with wife Cindy, who handles the business end.
"I tell people I'm the left brain," Cindy Castillo said.
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Joe Castillo, 64, said he went into America's Got Talent not knowing how well he'd do.
"We tried out without any expectation that it would go any further," Joe Castillo said.
Wearing his distinctive beret — originally used to cover the glare generated by his head around the light screen — he quickly became a fan favorite as he manipulated sand into pictures in the 90 seconds contestants were allotted.
He was a finalist on the NBC show. The Olate Dogs won with an act that featured backflips, group dancing and jump-rope. Joe Castillo appeared with the show's all-star lineup in a series of Las Vegas shows.
Joe Castillo's favorite moment during the Las Vegas run was meeting an elderly man "with hands as rough as corncobs," who took Castillo's hands in his own, and said: "I am from Armenia. I came to America to see you perform live."
The Castillos have been to 39 states and a variety of foreign countries. Joe Castillo has performed for such dignitaries as former President Jimmy Carter and has made presentations for Amway, Mercedes, Toyota and The Cotton Council. Cindy Castillo said the pair are on the road 160 to 180 days a year.
"The sand requires no translation," Joe Castillo said of the international appeal of the sand story. "It's an international art form."
While Castillo is likely the world ambassador for sand stories, the art form also has other practitioners, among them Kseniya Simonova, who won Ukraine's Got Talent in 2009 with her sand stories. As far as he knows, Castillo is the only sand story artist who has added different colors and shading to his creations.
A booming sand story career is a pretty good way to end up for a guy who started out a decade ago by swishing his toe through a broken bag of sand at a hardware store to see what kind of pattern he could make.
But Joe Castillo had been telling stories long before that.
Born in Mexico to artistic parents, Castillo initially worked in commercial art, then came to Kentucky for seminary study at Asbury. He pastored the Northridge church in Richmond, then started paying more attention to sand art after leaving that church.
"The sand was just a way of telling stories that people will remember," he said.
Perhaps the one flaw of sand art is the inability to hold onto it — to stabilize it in a form that can be framed and gazed at again and again. Castillo sells DVDs of his work on his website, but seeing the actual process of images being created, altered and reworked into something else is the true joy of the medium.
"The temporary nature of the artwork is part of the charm," Castillo said. "It's art that is by its very nature temporary, so you'd better enjoy it quickly."
While Joe and Cindy Castillo say that they are flattered with the attention they've received — a woman in a wheelchair in a nearby Meijer recognized Joe and insisted on a photo just the other day — they realize that other, newer reality shows are also churning out new favorites, such as newly minted winner Casadee Pope on The Voice.
"I don't want to make it sound like I'm all that and a bag of chips," Joe Castillo said. "It's humbling. It was and it is."
"It was unexpected," Cindy Castillo said. "We're totally grateful."