Kathy was featured in the Meet the Maker column in Ocean City Magazine
Every day, as the sun rises over the beaches of Ocean City, the deep orange sun mixes with the light blue sky to create a cotton candy sensation along the horizon.
The sand is cool to the touch, not yet hot from the day’s sun, and stretches smoothly from the dunes to the ocean as the waves crash along the shoreline. It’s tranquility in its purest form and, to the average person, this picturesque scene is perfect for phone screens and postcards, a memento to show friends and family.
Kathy Nichols is not your average person. To her, this picture-perfect landscape is something much more than that.
The sand and saltwater are all a part of a blank canvas for the Upper Township resident to create a once-in-a-lifetime piece of art for all the world – or at least for the beachgoers of whichever town she graces with her presence – to see.
Kathy is a part-time professional sand sculptor and full-time art teacher in North Wildwood, a post she’s held for the past 18 years. Her day job marries both her love for all things art and her desire to teach kids.
Funny enough, it was this love of kids and the beach, as well as her creative background, that sparked her desire to get into sand sculpting, all prompted by a simple request from her daughter.
“Mom, can you turn me into a mermaid?” she asked.
And of course, she obliged, leaving the top half of her daughter visible while creating a sandy tail in the likeness of Princess Ariel of “The Little Mermaid” fame.
“It turned into a kid magnet,” Kathy said with a chuckle.
Before she knew it there were lines of kids in her space waiting to have their own mermaid tail built into their torso. Her ability to manipulate the sand quickly turned from hobby to passion. The logical next step was to pick up a few tips and tricks. To do so, she attended a workshop led by local master sculptor John Gowdy.
“He was a speaker at the art educator association meeting,” Kathy explained. “Took us to the beach and showed us a few things. He was inspirational.”
Ready to Compete
With a few new metaphorical tools in her tool belt, Kathy was ready to step her game up by entering competitions. A recent competition over Easter break in Texas was her first two-day event.
The first part of the competition is what the competitors call “the pound up,” which involves mixing sand and water in a form, which is a large-scale mold, be it an open topped plywood box, landscape barrier or 55-gallon drum.
“You pound and pack the sand in tight and let the water do its thing,” Kathy said. “Keep shoveling buckets and buckets of water and sand until you fill up the form you created.
“Once the form is full you remove it and start carving,” she continued. “That’s the fun part.”
Depending on the tournament, Kathy decides if she wants to compete solo or as part of a team. For the Texas competition, she partnered with her 30-year-old art teacher daughter to create an ice cream-themed sand sculpture.
Cleverly named “I Scream, You Scream,” Kathy created a play on the tragedy and comedy masks, where one was happily screaming with an ice cream cone and the other was sadly screaming with an upside down cone on the ground.
Playing in the sand
Of course, Kathy isn’t purely a competitive sculptor. There have been times where she created a masterpiece just because. She said her motivation usually comes from something currently happening in the news – without getting too political. Take, for instance, a piece she created during the pandemic.
At the time, a Christmas tree had taken up residence on the beach, its seashell ornaments scribed with names of loved ones who had passed away. The scenic holiday tribute was destroyed. But Kathy took this tragic event and made it something worth smiling over.
She transformed two giant piles of sand into an oversized heart and hand and wrote “love heals the broken.” She then added the broken shells, making it look like the hand was pouring the pieces into the broken part of the heart.
“I wanted to show that you can take things that are broken and put them together to heal,” Kathy explained. “That was one of the most beautiful ones that I did.”
Her intended purpose was to ease the pain of those who felt as if they were dealing with the loss of a loved one all over again.
“This is what art does – it takes the unintentional and you can create something beautiful out of something commonplace,” Kathy said.
One day Kathy plans on retiring and becoming a master sculptor. Meaning her office wouldn’t be at Margaret Mace School in North Wildwood, but on a local beach. When that day comes, the cotton candy sunrises will greet Kathy each day after the waves have crashed along the shore and washed everything away; creating the perfect blank slate for her to get sculpting.