Mid-afternoon at the Kentucky Horse Park, 90-degree heat has drained the energy out of many people working to get ready for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
But Damon Farmer's project is intriguing enough to turn the most wilted of heads. And most of the questions are ones the Versailles artist has heard before:
What kind of sand do you use? How does it stay together? How long does it stay together? When did you start doing this?
Farmer is a sand sculptor — a world-champion sand sculptor, no less.
The piece he was doing Tuesday at the Horse Park was a mere prelude to his next major project: an 18-foot-tall World Equestrian Games-themed sculpture made from 100 tons of sand at Artique Gallery. On Thursday, Farmer and a crew were unloading sand for the sculpture, which will be built under the covered entrance at The Mall at Lexington Green.
For Farmer, it is a rare opportunity to show off the extent of his skill to a home crowd.
"The thing about sand sculpture is, you have to do it on site," Farmer says. "You can't move it."
And its temporary.
"None of my sand sculpture work currently exists in the world," Farmer said earlier this month, working on another small piece in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Campbell House hotel.
Sand sculptures can stand for a long time, but they inevitably have to come down, often just a few days after completion.
But they sure attract attention while they last.
That's sort of how it started for Farmer.
It began with a beach trip
He was a student at Berea College in 1988, when he went on a study trip to Pensacola Beach, Fla. By chance, he started working with sand on the beach, employing some sculpture techniques he had learned as an art student.
"The first two weren't all that great," Farmer recalls. "But the third one turned out really well. People were stopping to look at it, and eventually someone said, 'We need to call the paper and get them to come down here and take a picture of it.'"
That elaborate sand castle sparked a career that is now entering its third decade. Farmer travels the world building massive sand sculptures like the one he is creating off Nicholasville Road.
Among his regular gigs is a sand sculpture Nativity he and other sand artists create each year in Jesolo, Italy. Another regular stop is China, where Farmer once had the rare opportunity to work with colored sand.
"I could do it more," Farmer says. "But I don't like being away from home that much."
Sand is not Farmer's only medium. He also paints and does theatrical sets, frequently for The Woodford Theatre, which his wife, Beth Kirchner, directs. Farmer turned heads in 2000, when his HorseMania horse, Stonewall, fetched $53,000 at auction. He has two horses in Horse Mania 2010: The Industrial Evolution on Walton Avenue and Urban Legend in Gratz Park.
But for Farmer, the sand sculptures are what pay the bills. "It's deductive sculpture, like stone sculpture," Farmer says.
Sand sculpture recipe
The first job is to get the sand, which Farmer says is sometimes imported even when he is building on a beach. The best kind, he says, is a fine masonry sand. Locally, he gets his sand from Belleview Sand and Gravel in Petersburg, near Cincinnati.
When working out of town, particularly in new areas, Farmer frequently has to call around and ask masonries and other companies to send him sand in a plastic storage bag to see if it will be suitable.
"It doesn't take much to know," Farmer said. "If you ball it up and squeeze it in your fist and it holds its form when you open it, it's good. If you can toss it in the air and it doesn't separate, that's good."
What is holding the pieces together is the water between grains of sand, "like if you have water between two plates of glass, and they will not come apart."
When Farmer gets his shipment of sand, he packs it down in boxes to create blocks at which he then starts chipping away. In the case of monster installations like the Artique project, this involves a small construction crew.
Once the sand is packed, the boxes are removed, and Farmer begins to chisel out the forms, working down to progressively smaller implements to create the fine detail work. The only solvent he uses on the pieces is a spray bottle of watered-down Elmer's Glue, which is mainly to prevent erosion from elements like wind.
"The sand is really quite durable," Farmer says. "It would take a good pounding rain to destroy a piece."
After more than 25 years playing in the sand, Farmer's sand sculpture career has proved quite durable, too.