Visual Arts

Woodford sand sculptor gives Italian Nativity a unique presence

Damon Farmer with his sand sculpture of folks dyeing fabric
Damon Farmer with his sand sculpture of folks dyeing fabric submitted to the Herald-Leader

For Italians, apparently, nothing says "Oh, holy night" like folks dyeing fabric.

"They like to see sort of street scenes," said Versailles sand sculptor Damon Farmer, "sort of like a day in the life of Bethlehem."

Thus at the giant Nativity in Jesolo, Italy, in addition to the traditional cast — Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, barnyard animals — there are fishermen chatting over barrels, carpet merchants showing their wares, musicians making a joyful noise, and Farmer's contribution: five people hard at work dyeing reams for cloth.

In November, Farmer spent 10 days working with nine other international sand sculptors transforming 750 tons of sand into a giant indoor Nativity scene in Jesolo, a small city north of Venice. He spent another 10 days painting the backgrounds.

If you look closely at the 1,500-foot painted canvas backgrounds, you might notice that scenic Bethlehem looks a little like the Bluegrass.

"Suspiciously like the Woodford County countryside," Farmer said.

The exhibit is a decades-old holiday tradition in the resort town, drawing about 100,000 visitors a year during the off-season.

It's the 13th year that Farmer — who locally sculpted 100 tons of sand as the public watched during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games — has helped transform sand and water into his unique art form.

The sand artist from landlocked Kentucky got started building castles on vacation and, soon enough, was winning competitions, eventually becoming a world-renowned sand sculptor.

"It's not a big community, as you might imagine," Farmer, 63, said of sand sculptors. In fact, he said, the annual fall trip to Italy is kind of a reunion where the best sculptors in the world share tips and strategies.

For the Nativity, each sculptor started with two large blocks of packed sand brought in and formed by city workers. From there, finding the art in the sand is much like a sculptor of marble finding his piece in the stone: bits are subtracted and shaped until the full image emerges.

Farmer said his array of tools is relatively small, about a dozen in all. They range from a bucket-wielding Bobcat to a shovel to a tiny pick for delicate details. The motto of sand sculptors, he said: "Use the biggest tool for as long as possible."

When the exhibit is over in January, he said, the city workers who first set the sand take everything down. But, he said, after 30 years of working in sand he's come to accept its temporary nature.

"Sand sculpture," he said, "is an exercise in letting go."