Scott Doss Creates from the Beach — Literally
by Alastair Bland
Scott B. Doss works down at the beach. Likely, you’ve seen him toiling away in the sand — and likely you were impressed. Doss is the famous “Sandman,” the guy who has been creating life-sized human figures at Stearns Wharf for years. As a dedicated creator and entertainer, he has carved out a unique and illustrious niche in the culture of “outsider artists,” a term Doss himself uses to describe street performers who are untrained, largely unrecognized, and yet often marvelously talented.
Doss, 53, began sand-sculpting 19 years ago in Venice Beach. For several years prior he had been working as a door-to-door salesperson of T-shirts and hats adorned with custom advertising. It wasn’t a profession that particularly excited him, but he might never have quit if his mother, who had always been impressed by his painting skills, hadn’t encouraged him to try his hand at being an artist. “I’d tell my mom about some big sale I’d made, and she’d say, ‘Well that’s nice, but what about your art?’”
Doss first saw sand-sculptors at work in Venice Beach. They had tip jars and even appeared to be pulling in some dough. So one day he tried it himself. He put out a money bucket and spent the day on the beach, constructing a sun bather with her head flung back and her long hair cascading into the sand. It was very passable for a first attempt, and people responded positively. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just winged it and made enough money that day to encourage me to do it again,” he recalled.
And that he did. He left Venice Beach and went north, improving his skills and testing the sands of the big beach towns between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. He liked San Francisco, but it was too cold. In Carmel he worked with beautiful white sand, but it lacked in clay and easily blew away in the wind. But in Santa Barbara, sand and climate were just right, and Doss the Sandman has headquartered here for most of his sand-sculpting career, minus a few short stints on the Eastern seaboard.
His repertoire includes a shapely mermaid lounging on the beach, a kid building a sandcastle on the beach, and a brave soldier cradling a wounded comrade — on the beach. But he also sculpts the odd angel, a sailor enjoying a bubbling Jacuzzi, and a child learning to read with his mother. The soldiers, with their boots and mechanical gear, are fairly difficult, according to Doss, sometimes demanding 12 hours of hard work. “But I can do a mermaid now in an hour-and-a-half.”
When a sculpture is done, Doss lays down his spade for the day, but he doesn’t just go home. Until dusk he actively engages passing pedestrians with finely tuned banter and a thousand jokes he has crafted during nearly two decades of public entertaining. In return, spectators laugh, drop tips in the bucket, and ask questions. “I’ve gotten some really amazing questions,” Doss said. “Like, here I am, on the beach, making a sand sculpture, and people have actually asked me where I get my sand!”
But there are the occasional beach-goers who frown upon Doss as he digs out the moist sand and packs it into amazingly realistic and detailed figures. They may scoff at his work and suggest he acquire a “real job,” but most members of the public appreciate Doss’s work. Even the Santa Barbara police force and the mayor’s office recognize Doss as a valuable and legitimate element of the waterfront scenery, and they have responded numerous times in Doss’s favor when drunken rascals have threatened to destroy a sculpture.
Walkers on the beach near Stearns Wharf will encounter other talented “outsider artists.” One visionary has ornamented his vehicle with brilliant layers of colorful, protruding sculptures, and miniature plastic figures. Another man creates wood-burning illustrations using a magnifying glass. And there is even another sand-sculptor. Sort of.
“He’s a nice guy,” Doss said. “I like him, but all he does is take little stuffed animals, wet them down, and sprinkle them with sand so they look like sculptures. He puts out a tip jar and everything. That’s a little insulting to me, since I work hard all day.”
A sand sculpture, said Doss, may live for more than a week. However, after a five- to 15-hour day, Doss usually knocks down his creations. Too many people, he said, have come along after hours, popped open a beer, put out a tip jar, and taken credit for his hard labor. “And that rubs off on my image,” he said.
And Doss’s public image as the Sandman is the most challenging and tricky aspect of what he does. “It’s really important people make the distinction between the homeless, unemployed person holding a sign and a money bowl and the street artist like me who is actually producing something, creating an art form. People fail to perceive that difference, however, because I’ve got the tip bucket out in front of me. But I’m not homeless. I’m not hungry. I have a very viable vocation and I make a decent living.”
Throughout the years, Doss estimated, he has produced from the sand at Stearns Wharf about 1,000 figures. They rise at dawn and fall at dusk, from the same little patch of beach, from the same pile of ancient sand. His may not be a “real job” by the estimation of a few pessimists, but Doss loves his work. He thrives on the excitement of seeing a tangible, beautiful product at the day’s end, and he extends gratitude to the community that has supported him for nearly two decades. “Santa Barbara’s been great to me, and I’m not sure I could have done this for so long somewhere else.”
However, like the sculptures he pulls out of the sand, the Sandman himself may soon vanish from the beach. “My body’s not what it used to be. It’s getting more and more difficult to put up a sand sculpture. I think I may keep doing weekends, but I want to give more time to painting indoors. When my mother passed away, she left me all sorts of brushes and paints and things. She’s really the one who affirmed and encouraged me to be an artist for a living, and I’m extremely grateful to her.”
But out at Stearns Wharf, with Scott B. Doss on the scene or without, the sand remains. One may imagine that all those mermaids, sailors, and soldiers are there, too, waiting to arise and greet the day. It just takes a sandman to bring them to life.