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Mr. Sand Man: North Litchfield Beach is his blank canvas

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Ken Ewan lives at the beach — the one at Emerald Isle, N.C. — but that doesn’t stop him from vacationing in North Litchfield every year.

He and his wife, Jane, have spent part of their summer here annually for four decades, and Ewan has become something of a tourist attraction himself thanks to another annual tradition.

Ewan is a professional level sand sculptor and every year, he builds something special on the beach, signing it with his trademark paw print, an homage to his alma mater, Clemson University. In recent years, he has taken to coloring the print Clemson orange to make it pop.

Over the years, Ewan has fashioned everything from vehicles — bulldozers, dragsters, Jeeps, Humvees, trains, boats and planes — to a giant couch and coffee table topped with a vase and flowers all painstakingly carved from sand. He made a giant pair of shoes one year, a giant tube of toothpaste another, and gave some beachgoers a start once by sculpting a looming ape near a walkway. He also did a model of Clemson’s football stadium, Death Valley.

“I try to do something you don’t expect to see on the beach,” he said. For that reason, you won’t see him doing many sand castles and mermaids, though he has done some dolphins and such for beach weddings.

One of his favorite sculptures was a three-car roller coaster cresting a peak. He put each of his three kids in the cars and took a picture of them with their hands raised in the air as if it were a real, plunging amusement park ride.

He likes to make things people can sit in, like the roadster with a Tiger paw print on the grill he built on the beach last month.

Ewan’s creations are so enjoyed on the beach that other annual renters have started booking their vacations the same week Ewan is in town, said Carol Barr, broker in charge at SandBarr Real Estate. They want to see what he comes up with, and since Ewan often marks his creations with the year, a lot of families have taken to being photographed with his sculptures and using the image for scrapbooks and cards.

“It’s kind of flattering,” Ewan said of the notice he and his hobby receive. “My wife will tell you I’m a bit of a ham. I don’t mind the attention.”

Barr recently had a longtime renter say she didn’t know who was responsible for the sculptures, but she wanted to make sure she was scheduled during his week so she could watch next summer.

Ewan used to do three sculptures during his stay at North Litchfield, but since moving to Emerald Isle, he spaces out his projects, building some at home. His projects have also gotten smaller in recent years, as all his kids are grown now and he doesn’t have as much help with the work. His oldest, Mike, is 35, but was just 3 or 4 when Ewan built his first sand sculpture.

“He wanted to have me make something for him on the beach,” Ewan recalled.

So he built a car; the first of many, though it was far more crude than those that came after. However, he was creative with it. It was a woodie and he recalls putting his kids on the seat for a photo, packing boogie boards and a cooler in the back and using a Frisbee for a steering wheel.

Ewan used his hands to pack and smooth the sand on that first sculpture. He hadn’t learned all the tricks of the trade then, such as using the shiny inside of a potato chip bag to obtain clean lines and edges.

“You use it to almost sand it smooth,” Ewan explained. “It pushes all the sand particles into each other and makes it ultra smooth.”

He also has a range of special tools these days that he didn’t have for those early sculptures. He has the usual shovels and tamper tools, but many of his tools are larger, handmade versions of those used by clay sculptors. Roofing paper, a melon baller, broken golf club shafts, a 6-inch spackling blade and binder clips are also in his kit.

The work suits him, because he said he can’t “just sit” on the beach. He compares sand sculpting to performance art, because he always attracts a crowd. He laughs as he describes how couples and groups stand by, talking about him as if he isn’t there and asking each other questions about what he’s doing when they could easily just ask him. Much of what he knows, he learned from the Internet, he said. That made it easier to learn from people in professional sand sculpting organizations. He picked up tricks including using the potato chip bag and taking a rake to the sand around a sculpture to “fluff” it up and make the lines of the sculpture more distinct as they rise from the sand. He used to dig a hole in the sand and build there before he learned there was a better way.

The time that goes into the sculptures varies. This year’s roadster took about five hours. He started at 9 a.m. and finished in the early afternoon. If he doesn’t have a lot of help, he’ll try to do something that takes only three or four hours. The roller coaster he liked so much took about 11 hours.

If folks aren’t on the beach the day the sculptures are built they usually miss them. While this year’s made it to a second day, they usually don’t survive the first night.

“Everything bad that can happen to it will: the tide, loose and roaming dogs, 4-year-olds. It succumbs to dogs or kids or something. You can’t get attached,” he said.

Ewan gets his ideas for sculptures from a variety of sources, including others who practice the art. He has a file of images from other sculptors, from magazines, websites and ads. Sometimes he uses those to plan his annual Litchfield sculpture in advance, other times he’s inspired by a billboard or something else he sees on the drive down and makes his decision at the last minute.

Ewan and his family usually visit Litchfield with friends, several of whom help him with his annual sculpting project, mostly doing some of the bulk shoveling and helping with set up.

Ewan said he doesn’t have any plans to end his yearly tradition of sculpting on North Litchfield Beach. He’ll continue it for as long as he’s able.

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