This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Coast Monthly.
His artwork lasts only until the tide comes in or someone stomps on it along the water’s edge. But Taylor McClung is fine with that — there’s always more sand available to create another sand castle, with incredible detail and craftsmanship honed after much practice.
McClung, 35, lives in Sacramento, California, but travels to Galveston as the chief officer on an oil spill response ship for Marine Spill Response Corp. He likes to spend his off hours at the beach creating whimsical sand castles and towers for relaxation, he said. His creations always draw attention from curious onlookers.
McClung, carrying two 5-gallon buckets, a shovel and a few tools, bikes down to the beach, selects a spot just above the high-tide line in the sand and starts to work. He uses the sand around him, digging a moat to circumvent the soon-to-be constructed castle.
He first creates a solid base of sand and then starts building. He fills the bottomless buckets with clean, wet sand free of shells or seaweed, allows the water to drain and then removes the plastic pail to reveal the beginnings of his castle. It looks like the form of the bucket, but that will soon change.
“The sand sticks together when it is wet,” McClung said. “It is almost like a rock. I can start carving when the water drains out.”
McClung gets his ideas and methods for the towers and turrets, with their intricate winding stairs, nook windows and curving arches, from YouTube videos, he said.
He makes the arches by creating a mound of wet sand and holding it in place for a minute. Then he repeats several times until he connects two of the towers with an archway.
“I jiggle the sand to form the arches with my hands,” he said. “It is almost like working with concrete.”
Then he starts carving. Armed with a kitchen spatula and small masonry trowel, he cuts and slices away sand, trimming away excess to make the spiral staircases, semi-circle windows or doors and walls that look like ancient rock.
“It’s like cutting a cake,” said McClung, the father of two children. “I can add more water on the dry sand to keep it together, and then I cut.”
Each sand castle he builds is unique, inspired by the sand, sea, wind and tide.
“It’s a clean slate each time, but that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “As I cut away, the towers just start appearing. I am trying to find that castle buried inside the sand.”
McClung is extremely detailed-oriented and sometimes spends 10 minutes creating a window — carefully carving it out and gently blowing away excess sand with a straw, he said. The plastic straw method keeps sand from getting in his eyes, he said. He then smooths out rough edges, adding details, shadows and patterns to the symmetric towers and giving onlookers something to enjoy.
Old Galveston homes, churches and buildings, such as the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, inspire him, he said. He also appreciates that the island beaches are much cleaner than five years ago when he started his hobby in Galveston.
“This is a hobby that costs nothing, is easy to learn and doesn’t take long to become skilled at,” he said. “And if you don’t like what you’ve done, just wait for the tide to come in to wash it away or for someone to come along and stamp it down. It’s just temporary art, but lots of fun to do.”