scorecardWhy this artist spends hours creating sand paintings in New York's Washington Square Park
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Why this artist spends hours creating sand paintings in New York's Washington Square Park

Maggie Cai,Eric Purcell   

  • Joe Mangrum is a sand painter who creates colorful artwork in Washington Square Park in New York City.
  • He has practiced for 10 years to master the hand control he needs to create different shapes.
  • Joe showed us how he squeezes and lets go of just the right amount of sand to make a sand painting.

The following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Each speck of sand that falls from the grasp of this hand is a carefully calculated movement. When Joe Mangrum isn't creating pieces in galleries or in his studio, he spends a lot of his time in Washington Square Park in New York City.

There, he competes with Mother Nature and spends a painstaking six to eight hours on his knees, squeezing and letting go of just the right amount of sand at just the right speed to create vibrant pieces of art he calls sand paintings. Sand painting is exactly what it sounds like. It's the art of pouring colored sand onto a surface to create a design.

Early versions of this can be traced to Native Americans in the Pueblo and Navajo tribes. Joe's designs pull from different significant shapes and symbols from around the world. His work might remind people of something familiar: mandalas, which are spiritual or ritualistic geometric patterns that are symbolic in many religions. But Joe's work isn't religious or ceremonial.

Joe Mangrum: I don't use the term mandala specifically, because I feel it puts people in a more Eastern philosophy box. And I'm really incorporating different cultures around the world. From Africa, there's vèvè in Africa, and Celtic knots and Chinese knots, and different inspirations as well as science and nature and biology.

Narrator: So, how exactly does this painstaking artwork come together? And why do it in a park? The most important factor for Joe in deciding if he'll make the trek to Washington Square Park isn't the temperature, but the wind.

Joe: If the wind gets up to 15 mph or so, it's dust.

Narrator: When the wind isn't ideal for creating his pieces, he'll work in his studio. These are more intricate, precise, and permanent, so that people can enjoy them even if they're not in the park. But if the wind conditions are good, Joe will carry about 25 pounds of colored sand to the park to create his work. In a good week, he could use up to a quarter ton of sand.

Joe: My hand technique is really just taking the sand, gripping a handful, and letting it just flow through this little part of my hand, and I adjust my pinky so I just let it flow.

Narrator: That part seems pretty simple, but mixing it with more specific and intricate detail work, like shading and smaller shapes, means Joe must have complete control of his hand muscles.

Joe: I can do quick lines and stop it just by squeezing my hand together, and then kind of redefine them by going over, back and forth.

Narrator: Knowing how much sand to release and how quickly or slowly to do it is crucial for Joe to execute his vision. And it's a process that has taken over 10 years of practice.

Joe: So, if you get really close to the ground, you can make thin lines. And then you maybe widen the flow with your pinky, and you can go upward and it flows. So it's essentially like a graffiti spray can, only it's gravity fed. So the further you get back, the wider the spray.

Narrator: So creating designs as intricate as these should require hours of planning, right? Well, in reality, none of it is planned at all. All of the shapes and colors are chosen and created freehand in the park. Then, when he's done, he'll spend five to six more hours talking to people who stop by to take a look.

Joe: The favorite part about what I do is really just engaging people. It's just fun. It's like you're playing with the world around you. It's really a way to bring smiles to people's faces and have fun doing it, and still, you know, make a living.

Joe: I was really good at that Operation game when I was a kid.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This video was originally published in January 2020.