Guelph woman, world champion sand sculpture, goes with the grain

On her 14th birthday, Karen Fralich’s mother bought her a seven-week course taught at a pottery shop in Guelph.

Little did she know it would set her on the path to a 30-plus-year career in professional sand sculpting, including five world championships.

“I thought it was just going to be a hobby,” Fralich told GuelphToday.

After the course was over, Fralich said the owner asked him to stay to learn more, which he did, eventually meeting a professional sand sculptor who asked him to help him with a sculpture project in a shopping center

“The second I started playing with the sand, I was hooked,” she said.

Fralich immediately wondered how he could turn this into a career and hone his craft over the next four years while working a day job.

In 1998, he qualified for his first World Championship competition in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia.

“From there, (my network) just exploded,” Fralich said. “Until then, I had only met the guy who was teaching me. When I went to Harrison Hot Springs, there must have been 60 very experienced carvers from all over the world.”

She began to be invited to participate in more projects and competitions, and by 2001, sand sculpting was her full-time job.

It has taken him all over the world, competing at the highest level, judged on the originality of his work, the difficulty and the wow factor.

These elements are what he is using to judge the work of the second season of the CBC show Race Against the Tide.

Competitors are in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy, home to the highest tides in the world, and the 10 two-person teams are tasked with completing sculptures in six hours.

Compare that to the three to 10 days given during Masters level competitions.

And these aren’t your average sandcastles with little buckets either.

“When you’re on the beach, you might be working with 20 pounds to 300 pounds of sand,” Fralich said. “The piles we’re working with are about 10 to 20 tons of sand, and the compaction process will make your sand sculpture eight to 10 feet tall.”

Throughout his career, Fralich has created a series of one-of-a-kind pieces, drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, even under the cap of a cider bottle years ago.

“The trivia on this particular bottle said ‘somewhere in Iowa, people are knitting for prizes,'” she said.

“I thought it was fun, so I dueled furiously knitting grannies in a knitting contest (as a sculpture).”

His work was also featured at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 2019, when he sculpted a piece honoring the NBA champion Toronto Raptors.

The 53-year-old, who moved to Guelph in 2015 with her husband, is still having fun and hopes to continue shoveling and creating new pieces of sand art for a long time.

Fralich encourages anyone who wants to try sand sculpting to try at least once.

“It’s not for everyone, but if you love it, you’re going to love it,” he said. “Just go to the beach, get a big pile of sand and get some things out of the kitchen, like knives, forks and spoons, and try it.

“You’ll know very quickly if you like it or not, and most people do. It’s a really fun medium, the sky’s the limit. My best advice would be to just have fun and think outside the box.”

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