Sandsational Sculpting

Michel De Kok is an international multi-award-winning sand and ice sculptor who now lives in Odeceixe – which Condé Nast Traveler reported as being “one of the south’s best-kept secrets” – I think, perhaps, because he lives there! 

One of Michel’s best and biggest achievements was winning first prize at the World Sand Sculpting Championship in Harrison, Canada, in 2007 – a very big deal in the sand sculpting world. As a result, he became highly sought after worldwide.

Michel first started experimenting with sand sculptures while he was studying at the Royal Art Academy in the Hague, Holland. In his free time, he would help out at sand festivals, preparing the sand by shovelling it for the other sculptors. Soon he learnt the techniques and quickly became part of the sand sculpting community, which he fondly describes as a ‘family’.

Since his first introduction to sand sculpting in 1999, he has gone on to earn first prize at an international competition in 2006 in Switzerland. Along with many more first titles in Europe, Canada and America, in 2012 he represented Portugal in the European Championships in Holland and again won first prize for his sand sculpture, helping to put Portugal on the world sand sculpting map. In the last 12 years, he has regularly been invited to contribute to the Lagoa Sand City installation.

Michel tells me that most sand sculptures are made from river sand as the structure is different from that of beach sand – it has more sharp-edged grains, allowing better form and structure, making it easier to work with. To make the structure, square wooden boxes are laid on top of each other and filled with sand to ensure that they are compacted enough so that when they are removed, the sand is hard enough to sculpt. Sometimes structures can be 22 metres high and working conditions very challenging. 

In 2012, he was invited to contribute to a sand exhibition which included creating a David Beckham sculpture in a Hong Kong shopping mall to mark the 2012 London Olympics. Working in the night, without air-conditioning, and dealing with moving tonnes of sand onto the location, was a big challenge.

His artistic journey did not end with sand. Most sand sculptors are also ice sculptors, as it is a seasonal occupation. From 2008, Michel was invited yearly to build the Iglu-Dorf Zermatt, in Switzerland. It is a five-week process that depends completely on the weather conditions.

His team constructed the inside of the hotel with ice, creating the bar area and all the interior architecture of the igloo. They always chose to work at night, finishing up at 5 am, after which they skied down the hill, back to the village and returned to work again the next night. On a few occasions, they got lost while skiing down the mountain.

It wasn’t all fun, though. You have to wear protective gear, as chainsaws are used to create the artwork, so you get wet and frozen very quickly. Once, when working at 3000 metres, they were snowed in for three days and ran out of food towards the end. During this time, they spent most of their days digging out snow as it was piling up two to three metres high. Fortunately some of the igloos had been constructed so they had shelter and were able to keep warm. 

Along with making the ice hotel, he also worked to set up ice installations to accompany the Glühwein Christmas markets in Germany and Holland, where between 20 to 60 artists display their artwork every year.

Michel quit commercial ice-sculpting about three years ago because he felt conflicted about sculpting ice in an environment that is not natural to ice and that’s just been created for the exhibitions. Ice festival events also have a negative environmental impact, as event tents need to keep temperatures to minus eight degrees Celsius, which uses a lot of electricity. Michel prefers to now work with sand as it is more sustainable. He will only do ice sculpting now if it is in its natural environment, meaning not where the ice has to be specially brought in. 

“Sand uses much fewer tools, is more malleable and allows more freedom and creativity. You can work to a big scale in a very short time and can correct mistakes very easily, unlike when working with ice, stone and clay,” he tells me.

Michel has vast experience in running workshops, teaching people to become inspired by 3D sculpting with clay and sand. He especially enjoys teaching children to use their hands creatively to improve their brain-to-hand coordination as an alternative to digital technology. 

If you would like to collaborate with Michel for ‘on location’ workshops or customised sculptures in different materials, please contact him directly.

Instagram: @senses_art


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