Martign Rijerse began sculpting sand as a hobby 10 years ago as an architecture student.
A decade later, he's one of the Sandsational Sand Sculpting crew members working with 160 tons of sand in Point State Park this week, building a 12-foot sculpture for this year's EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.
"The hobby grew out of proportion," Mr. Rijerse said with a laugh. "I'm really stuck in the sand."
Sand sculpting started as a hobby for Sandsational's owners, too, but Jill Harris and Thomas Koet have now been running the Melbourne, Fla.-based company together for 14 years. This is the third year they have come to Pittsburgh for the regatta.
"We've been out here for three days already, just preparing the sand," Ms. Harris said. "We get the people that are walking to work or do lunch here or walking their dog, and we recognize all these folks. That's the big question, 'What's it going to be this year?' "
They have to wait just a little bit longer to find out. This year's sculpture is still a surprise, but Mr. Koet promised the figures would be visible soon.
"It really is going to start in a couple of days, and people are going to shout out, 'Oh, I see this, I see that,' " Mr. Koet said.
The crew began serious sculpting Friday and plans to finish July 1. They have used a wood frame to help pack the sand, and they'll remove the layers of wood as they work from top to bottom to create the finished product.
"By the time it gets down to the ground, you have this big massive epic art piece," Ms. Harris said. "Today it's just a big pile of sand."
She looked over at the developing sculpture and laughed.
"I guess it's still a big pile of sand when it's done, but it's a more beautiful big pile of sand."
Refining that big pile of sand into something beautiful is the best part of the process, Mr. Koet said. The basic shapes have been shoveled out, and he's ready to start working with the smaller tools.
"You start on the details, and it really comes to life," he said.
The Sandsational team did drop a few hints as to what the sculpture will be. As the Fourth of July approaches, Ms. Harris promised the sculpture will be "true to the American spirit." Two years ago, they created American icons like Rosie the Riveter and the "American Gothic" figures, and last year's sculpture was a giant reproduction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
But so far, making guesses at the subject is just building castles in the sky -- or the sand.
"We're going to make you come back to find out what it is," she said.
Megan Doyle; email@example.com or 412-263-1953.