Arts Illustrated

December 30, 2020

Etchings on Sand

A quick peek into the world of sand artist Nathaniel Alapide, who turns the transient nature of his practice on its head and etches every stroke on the sand deep within the meaning of life

Tessy Koshy

The salty sea breeze ruffles my frizzy hair as I watch a gentle wave of pale green frothy water pool around my feet. This December, as I walk along the strip of Kite beach, a popular sandy spot in Dubai, the sky is cloudless and the sun a bright orange. A beach visit is usually with the family, but today I get to mix work with stunning views interviewing Nathaniel Alapide, a well-known local sand artist. Philippines-born Nathaniel, who has a day job at Rixos The Palm Hotel, Dubai, making sand art for guests, is all set to showcase a slice of his creativity exclusively for me.

Photographs by Tessy Koshy

Across the horizon, my eyes catch the outlines of a white ship bobbing on the other edge of the wide Persian Gulf, just as a flock of seagulls glide over my head. All around me are beach revellers taking leisurely dips in the ocean and little ones squeaking in delight collecting sea shells. ‘The tide is running low today, best time to create sand art,’ observes Nathaniel. A black hat covers his straight hair, with monochrome round glasses, he looks every bit the suave artist who seems well-versed with the natural texture of his canvas. With only a garden rake, he sets out to etch on the sand. I soon find a spot on the beach to sit and witness this live creation take shape.

Nathaniel started carving the head of a bird in the wet sand. Next, he adds two giant wings with lined plumes. With his rake he keeps etching layers on the sand to complete the picture. Not done yet, he begins tracing the figure of a fish wide eyed lying ashore. Against the backdrop of the ocean, with the sun’s rays glistening on top of the waves, the bird and the fish etched on the tanned sandy sheet merge to create an ethereal artistic experience for me.

Image Credit: @ alapide_creator

With our phone cameras, we both attempt to capture the beauty of the scenic moment, just as a toddler comes running, ready to crash into the bird’s wings, only to be pulled back by her mother in time. I ask Nathaniel the obvious question that has been prancing in my head: how does he align to an art form that is so ephemeral? ‘All of us like to hold on to things, and sand art teaches us just the opposite – the value of letting go, non-attachment to our desires, to not hold on to situations that are beyond our control,’ he answers.

Sand art, then, is a great life coach. It has several profound philosophical takeaways. For Nathaniel, the act of creation is a deep meditative state, when he feels connected to his higher self. He shares that his inspiration also came from the sand mandalas he saw being made by Tibetan Buddhist monks in a monastery in Nepal. The monks practice the art of making intricate sand mandalas for years, taking days and months to create them, only to disperse them in flowing waters signifying the impermanence of life. ‘Sand art,’ says Nathaniel, ‘is a constant reminder about the transient nature of life; how everything is always changing, including the waves, the sand and even our life’s circumstances.’

Photograph by Tessy Koshy

Much like the art form, his journey into sand art was also shaped by an unexpected and difficult phase in his life, when he lost his grandmother in 2014. Working in Dubai, he was unable to attend her funeral in the Philippines. ‘She had raised me. To express my grief and as a tribute to her I drew a big tree on the sand on the beach. I found it to be an extremely therapeutic experience that was able to soothe my pain. I also found that when we lose people physically, it does not mean that we have lost them forever.’

Image Credit: @ alapide_creator

From then on, Nathaniel, who used to work as an aquarist in a hotel, and dabbled in art only as a hobby, started heading to the beaches of Dubai to make art on sand. The large striking cityscapes, portraits and landscapes that he drew soon got him work as a sand artist in a hotel. Today he exhibits regularly at several events in the city including DIFC art nights, World Art Dubai and GITEX Technology week. ‘Whenever I create a work on sand, I relive the memories and values that I have learnt from my grandmother’, he says. Growing up, he embraced art early on, and now he also creates abstract art and oil portraits.

Image Credit: @ alapide_creator

As we talk, a family walks by, stopping to admire Nathaniel’s bird and fish, still alive on sand. Sand art, being a live experience, done in open public beaches, might often invite a string of instant reactions from the audience. ‘Yes, people do walk up to me and say that I am doing a good job. “Thank you for creating this” or “The beach looks more special now”. To me, it is either recreating an image I have seen on my travels, or making the portrait of a person I have met or just taking inspiration from daily life. It is about following my intuition and letting the sands, the waves and the sky fuel me to fill my canvas.’ he says.

Nathaniel Alapide. Photograph by Tessy Koshy

Sand art, for me, was a new artistic experience, one that will remain in my memory for long; not just for its sheer nature-inspired brilliance, but also for triggering some timely introspection into dealing with life’s curves.

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