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The Sandman

Scott Doss Creates from the Beach — Literally

by Alastair Bland

Scott-Doss-Buddha.jpgScott 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.”

Scott-Doss.jpgWhen 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.

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