Brian Wigelsworth and Matt Long are a creative force
By Hannah Wallace
Of all the world-class artists competing in this month’s Siesta Key Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival, none knows our famed quartz sand better than Brian Wigelsworth. And as much as anyone, he recognizes this sand’s potential for mind-blowing entertainment.
A professional master sculptor in his own right, Wigelsworth founded the Crystal Classic in 2010 and ran it for a decade before handing the reins to his business partner, Andy Daily, in 2021. Since then, Wigelsworth has gotten to participate. He will once again be competing this year in the doubles class with teammate and close friend Matt Long.
Their team has finished second each of the last two Crystal Classics. But wherever they place, their primary aim is to put on a show.
“A lot of these [sand] artists are fine artists. They do incredible work,” said Wigelsworth this October from South Carolina, where he now runs the northern branch of his and Daily’s Sandventure Crew company. “I come from a commercial background. Fine artists create their art from their heart. A commercial artist creates their art for their client, to entertain or impress. That’s our client — the people who come through the event. I think of what they want to see. I’m creating art for the people.”
While some sand sculptors listen to their headphones while they work, Long and Wigelsworth embrace their showmanship from the moment they start carving. They love to chat with the crowds, even as they’re also pushing the sand to the limits of detail and gravity.
“We like to show off that way,” said Wigelsworth.
Added Long, “The truth is, we are absolutely, as a group, entertainers.”
The two first met in 2007 at a sand sculpting competition in Fort Myers. Long was competing in the professional division and Wigelsworth, then still an amateur, was on the cusp of gaining master sand sculptor status. They had instant chemistry. “The stories just flowed,” Wigelsworth said.
That chemistry is important for sculpting partnerships, both on and off the sandpile. Professional sand sculptors make the bulk of their income traveling around the country — and the world — to carve pieces for events like corporate getaways, destination weddings, and theme park celebrations. In recent years, Long and Wigelsworth have teamed up for a number of such gigs, hitting the road together to do sculptures in as many as eight different malls in a stretch.
“Brian is a fabulously talented artist with a lot of art training. I’ve learned a lot from him,” said Long, who spoke to us while preparing to travel to Antigua for a solo gig. “You get lucky in this life. You just connect with some people. He’s like a brother.”
When it comes to their sculptures, Long and Wigelsworth turn heads with their complementary styles. “He is more of a hard-line artist, and I’m more of a soft,” said Wigelsworth, who is especially adept at human faces that truly resemble their subject.
“We’ve taken advantage of his ability to create these likenesses,” said Long. “It’s an advantage over other sculptors. Especially with the People’s Choice [category]. We pick topical things that the masses like.”
In one contest, they created a stunning tribute to John Lennon. Wigelsworth carved the Beatle’s head, complete with Lennon’s signature teashade glasses, while Long handled the accompanying guitar, sunburst, doves, and peace sign.
Wigelsworth maintains that their second-place finish was due only to the scheming of one unscrupulous judge, whose lone low vote brought their average down enough to lose the crown. That judge’s name just happened to be Mark Chapman and, when Wigelsworth and Long checked into his last name out of curiosity, it was David. That’s right, Mark David Chapman — the exact same name as Lennon’s assassin.
“Matt was furious,” Wigelsworth remembered. “I said, ‘You’ve just gotta relax. We got a great story. Mark Chapman just killed Lennon again.’”
Since Wigelsworth first created it, the Crystal Classic has been enticing some of the best sculptors from around the world to come to Sarasota. COVID-19 hampered international travel in recent years, but this year’s contest marks a return to pre-pandemic standards, with sand artists from the Netherlands, Canada, Italy, Ukraine, Japan, Lithuania and Latvia, plus individuals and teams from the U.S. (They do still face a scheduling conflict with the start of the ice sculpting season in Europe. Many of these artists work and compete in both media.)
Wigelsworth and Long are both unabashed fans of many of the other attendees this year. They’re quick to describe the stunning pieces they’ve seen other artists carve from sand — alligators, castles, pirates, even a giant head encased in a knitted mask, giant sand hands clasped to the cheeks.
“I’ll probably never be that good. But that’s OK,” said Wigelsworth. “I do what I do and I entertain the people. The [Sarasota] community benefits. I’m really happy I created an event that brings in $9 million locally. I’d feel guilty if I came in first place. I’m already a winner.”
Their admiration for their peers, as well as their love of the limelight, makes the Crystal Classic atmosphere alone the best reason for participating.
“When a contest is over, so often I will look at the 10 or 12 sculptures around me, and I tear up,” said Long. “It’s just magnificent. I spend my life telling people, you can look at pictures, but you have no conception of what it looks like unless you see it live.”
Friday, Nov. 10 through Monday, Nov. 13, Siesta Beach
- Adult: $12 per day
- Child: (Ages 5 – 17): $6 per day, must be accompanied by a paying adult
- Military Discount: $10 per day – Active and Retired Military Personnel (Identification required.)
- Senior Discount: (age 65 and up): $10 per day
- 4-Day Value Pass: $40 per adult (available in advance and online only) and $20 for children (ages 5 – 17 if accompanied by a paying adult.)
- Children under 5 are free, must be accompanied by a paying adult.
— PLEASE PRINT YOUR TICKETS FOR ENTRY —
- 4-Day Value Pass ticket holders need to check in at the check-in kiosk to receive their wristband good for entry all four days of the event.
- Single-day ticket holders will receive a hand stamp for the day they purchased.
Reserved Parking Passes: $55 (online only; while supplies last)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 10, Nov. 12 and Nov. 13; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 11 (featuring lighted sculptures)
Amateur Sand Sculpting Competition: Nov. 11 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (winners announced at 4 p.m.)
Quick Sand Competition: Nov. 10 12:30 and 4:30 p.m.; Nov. 11 12:30 and 4:30 p.m.; Nov. 12 12:30 and 4:30 p.m.
Sand sculpting demos and lessons: Nov. 10 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. ; Nov. 11 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; Nov. 12 10:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.;
Awards ceremony: Nov. 12 at 3 p.m.
- Nov. 10: Philharmonic Band 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Kettle of Fish 2 to 5 p.m.
- Nov. 11: Ten 76 Band 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; From the Edge Band 2 to 5 p.m.; Smudgekitten 6 to 8:30 p.m.
- Nov. 12: John Patti Project10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Tropical Ave 2 to 5 p.m.
- Nov. 13: Hyrdamatic 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Out of the Blue 2 to 5 p.m.