- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

EDGEWATER, Fla. (AP) - Rich Varano remembers his “old-school” Italian father placing him in the sand when he was 6 years old and sculpting figures around him.

“He was like an artist in denial,” Varano said about his late father. “He would dig holes that us three little ones would sit in. I remember at that time being so impressed with how big you could make something so fast.”

Varano, 58, was born in New York but grew up the middle child of six kids in New Smyrna Beach where his father first introduced him to the art of sand sculpture.

Now, Varano owns and manages Varano Sand Sculpture LLC, which has led him to every continent except Antarctica in his 31 years in the sand art business.

Sitting in his Edgewater home, surrounded by wood sculptures that he occasionally carves for enjoyment, Varano said he never studied art in school, and as a teenager, he would just sculpt on the beach for nickels and dimes or to pick up girls.

“My father always thought art was a little feminine,” Varano said. “I quickly realized from an early age that I like this and I want to do it, but I just can’t tell anyone. “

After a series of jobs in hospitality burned him out in his 20s, Varano caught his lucky break when a friend of a friend helped him land a job at SeaWorld in Orlando creating sand sculptures for the popular theme park. He had a salaried position that took him on tours in Europe, and through the process, he gained enough clients through SeaWorld to help him start his own side business.

After about 10 years of juggling both jobs, Varano quit his position at SeaWorld to start his own larger ventures. Varano’s first big project was in 1992 in the cities of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Delray Beach when the Sun Sentinel newspaper asked him to construct a 12-foot exhibit commemorating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America.

Fast forward 25 years and Varano now has “a couple dozen” core artists he hires for bigger projects. He no longer sculpts as much, only the projects he wants, and he mostly manages the artists he hires. Varano, who’s won many awards and medals, has never been big on competitions, either.

“The business has been good to me,” he said. “But I’m a creative person. It’s the process of making it.”

Varano recently returned from Jesolo in Italy’s Venice province, where he oversaw the creation of a Nativity scene that also depicted Pope Francis and scenes of the Catholic Church’s 14 corporal and spiritual acts of mercy.

The mayor of Jesolo hired Varano 18 years ago to bring sand sculpting to the city’s beach on the Adriatic Sea - a popular vacation spot for families.

Now, Varano does one show every summer in Jesolo and then another in the winter. The theme of the summer show always changes, and last summer artists sculpted scenes from World War I. In past years, the summer exhibit had other themes such as the Wild West, Ancient Rome and Dante’s Inferno.

Dan Belcher, a full-time sand sculptor who lives in St. Louis, has worked for Varano for many years. He has been a sculptor for Varano’s shows in Italy before.

“He just makes sure everyone else is having fun, and the whole project is well-orchestrated,” Belcher said. “He’s a good friend and fun to be around.”

With the summer and winter show combined, Varano said they used about 4,000 tons of sand to construct the works of art. Not all sand is created equal, though.

Varano said 90 percent of the world’s beaches aren’t ideal for sand sculpting. Thankfully, New Smyrna Beach has nice, compact sand, but more coarse sand, like what is seen on Ormond Beach, is not compact enough. Loose, “fluffy” sand is not ideal for sand sculpting either.

As a “semi-retired” artist now, Varano said he hopes in the near future to start a sand sculpting event or festival in New Smyrna Beach to bring it back home to where his love for art all started. Varano said he doesn’t think he will ever “fully retire.”

“As an artist, it is innate,” he said. “You create. It is something you have to do.”

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Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, https://www.news-journalonline.com


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