REVERE — Who are they?
That was the question on the minds of spectators as they watched Justin Gordon carve five larger-than-life heads out of sand at the National Sand Sculpting Festival on Revere Beach.
Every few minutes, someone mustered the nerve to interrupt and ask, “Hey, sir. Who are they?”
Gordon removed a straw from his mouth that he was using to blow sand from a wrinkle he had carved. “Nobody,” he responded.
They didn’t believe him.
Maybe it’s a cowboy, someone mused. How about an Italian cook, another spectator ventured. Those seemed plausible. But some other guesses? Not so much.
“Ronald Reagan was one of the most outrageous ones I’ve heard,” said Gordon, a Groveland native.
He named the piece “Heads, I Win,” invoking the coin-toss game. The five male heads, with finely detailed hair strands, wrinkles, and noses, were carved in 30 hours over three days.
Gordon said he settled on the faces, over his alternate choices of a posing woman or a single skeletal face, because of the detail and expression the five faces exhibit. Whether it’s the stern man with deep wrinkles or the man with a single curl on his otherwise bald head, each face is comical, yet realistic.
“I get away with something that is a bit of an abstract, but it still has to look like a human, like that weird uncle,” he said.
Gordon was one of 10 sculptors competing for the top prize of $5,000, and their creations included a dedication to a long-mourned mother as well as a giant bumblebee. The sand sculptors came to the ninth annual Revere Beach festival from as far away as Acapulco, Mexico, and were allowed to use only sand, water, and some sculpting tools.
Gordon has participated in the Revere competition twice before, but has not won. In fact, he has won just one competition in his 34 years of sand sculpting.
This year, the creator of the giant bee took top honors. Jonathan “Jobi’’ Bouchard, of Montreal, called his entry “Bee or Not to Be.’’
Although Gordon said he wanted to win the competition this year, he said he did not choose his design based on what might garner votes. Instead, he picked his design based on what he would most enjoy creating.
“You just have to do what you love and let the rest come naturally,” Gordon said.
Many of the sculptors said the Revere competition is a favorite because they get to judge one another’s work. They were given a report card to give their peers a letter grade based on originality, degree of difficulty, quality of carving, its finish, artistic impression, and wow factor.
Meredith Corson, one of the competition organizers, said most sand sculpting events are judged by artists, but that may include painters or jewelry makers, who may not fully understand what makes a magnificent sand sculpture.
“To spend 30 hours and have somebody come out and look at your sculpture for five minutes and say, ‘I like this one best’ is insulting,” Corson said. The sculptors “spend time with it, and nobody knows the work like they do.”
Steve Topazio of Tiverton, R.I., was one of Gordon’s judges. He is also Gordon’s student.
Topazio participated in an amateur contest 10 years ago and wanted to learn how to improve his craft. He said he met Gordon at Hampton Beach, N.H., and asked Gordon if he would take him under his wing.
Years later, Gordon continued to teach Topazio. On Thursday evening, when the artists had about an hour left to work for the day, Topazio was sculpting the nose of his queen-like creature and asked Gordon for tips. With a couple of swift hand movements through the air, Gordon showed Topazio exactly what to do.
“I still look to him as my mentor,” Topazio said.
Although he finds his mentor’s work fascinating, Topazio said on Friday that he thought the man to beat was Bouchard, Revere Beach’s reigning champion for the third consecutive year now.
Bouchard’s work always has extensive detail and is extremely clean, Topazio said.
But the details in Gordon’s work had attracted the largest crowd on the days leading up to the judging on Saturday, and spectators wanted him to know it.
“Are you kidding me?” one spectator shouted, as he first laid eyes on Gordon’s work. “Now that’s what you call detail.”
Gary and Irene Gladstone of Needham were among the spectators trying to figure out who the sculpture’s five heads represented. George Bush was their first guess (though which former president they meant was unclear), but maybe it really was a cowboy?
In the end, it did not matter that there was no concrete answer. Gordon’s sculpture was their favorite.
“They are so three-dimensional. They are comical, yet so beautifully designed,” Gary Gladstone said. “It’s sort of Mount Rushmore on steroids.”