By Linda White
Special to the Toronto Sun
Point a child to a beach armed with a bucket and a shovel and chances are he'll build a sand castle. When Karen Fralich was armed with those same tools in her mid-20s, she decided to build a career.
Karen Fralich puts the finishing touches on her "Thunderbird" sand sculpture, which won solo first place at last year's World Championship Sand Sculpturing Competition held in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C.
Ten years later, she's grown accustomed to the blank stares she gets when people ask her what she does for a living. After all, she's one of just a few dozen people in all of North America who make a living as a sand sculptor.
It's not the path she started digging for herself. She dropped out of an electronics engineering technology course at a Kitchener college and wandered aimlessly from one job to another before landing a job at a pottery studio.
When the owner's boyfriend needed help in a sand-sculpting contest
in Milton, Fralich willingly picked up a shovel. The rest, as they say, is history.
"After helping him for two days, I knew what I wanted to do," says the 35-year-old Burlington resident.
"It takes a lot of practice and a love for it," Fralich says. "You have to love to get dirty. You have to be strong because you have to shovel heavy sand. You don't see too many women sand sculptors."
Fralich worked alongside her mentor for a year. Winning a Wasaga Beach contest in June 1998 qualified her to compete in the annual World Championship Sand Sculpting Competition in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C. Though she didn't win anything there, Fralich met hundreds of sand sculptors from around the world.
She also captured the attention of California-based Sandscapes, which later hired her to do freelance projects. "I did any contest I could get into," Fralich says. "I worked for practically nothing to get my name out there. It's all freelance and word of mouth. I work at a lot of exhibitions and enter a lot of contests. Sometimes I don't get paid, but I get a free vacation."
She won the Solo World Championship in B.C. and the Virginia Beach Doubles with boyfriend, Scott Herel, last year.
Farm Scene is a 50-tonne sand sculpture Fralich carved as a Sandscapes project for last year's CNE.
Her career has taken her to Japan, Italy, Spain, France and throughout North America. She recently returned from Australia, where she worked alongside 15 other sculptors to create Disney characters out of 35,000 tonnes of sand.
Like any other job, Fralich can work eight to 10 hours a day. "If it's extremely hot outside, it drains you so you can't work so long. I prefer working outdoors. I have a huge arsenal of hats and sunblock. Unfortunately, I'm one of those people who doesn't tan well."
Fralich sometimes uses blueprints, but more often tackles a pile of sand with just her imagination and a variety of tools.
"I love doing people and animals, dinosaurs, old people's faces and very young and cute faces. Anything's a challenge," she says. "Everybody has their own technique and their favourite tools. I use a lot of masonry tools, kitchen utensils and little shovels."
Along the way, Fralich has become an expert on sand. "Beach sand is the hardest to work with," she explains. "It has been washed by the ocean for hundreds of years ... If you look at it under a microscope, the grains are very round. Ideally, you want to work with young sand, which is sometimes called masonry or blow sand, and can come from a quarry. If you look at it under a microscope, it's more triangular."
She can't imagine doing anything else, but says her career choice can be demanding. "I hope it goes for a long, long time. Some professional sand sculptors are still doing this into their 60s," Fralich says. "I'm fortunate to have incredibly understanding loved ones. It's wonderful to see different places, but the jet lag and loneliness can get to you."
She's often asked about how her sculptures hold up to rain. "It usually takes some pretty intense weather to destroy sculptures. A little bit of rain is actually good for a sculpture ... It's pretty rare for a sculpture to be destroyed by weather."
But in the end, sand sculptures are only temporary, which contributes to their charm, Fralich believes. "Part of what makes sand sculptures magical is that they're temporary art. As long as I get to take lots of pictures, I'm okay with that."
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