Artist's Statement

Beach shovel art is designed to evoke memories of childhood days at the beach, fun times spent building sand castles and playing in the sand and surf.  

For the first installation, I found all the shovels and toys on trips to the beach in Southern Caiifornia in 2012-13.  The initial incentive for picking up shovels came from my mom, who has a string of them in the garage.

I was able to find many more shovels than I expected.  Southern California beaches draw numerous visitors, and many parents bring their kids for a day at the beach.  For a few dollars, parents can buy a plastic bucket and shovel or a mesh bag filled with an assortment of toys for their children to play with.  Kids being kids, one or two of the toys may get lost in the sand or left behind.  I found many plainly visible on the sand, other partially hidden, and others still which appeared to have been washed up or uncovered by the ocean.  Some of the shovels and toys were apparently lost on their maiden voyages to the beach, while others were well worn and a few were even a bit sun bleached.

I focused on the brightly colored plastic shovels and sea animal toys (fish, starfish, crabs, octopuses, walruses, whales and such as well as boats).  I left behind buckets (too unwieldy) and bucket handles, sundry land animal and non-animal toys (elephants, cows, castle molds, cars) as well as other beach junk including action figures and sunglasses.  For months I also left behind broken shovels, but then I figured out that the handles and blades can be incorporated in the artwork.

Typically I'd go down to the beach in the morning and run or walk two to six miles.  On most days I was able to find at least two or three shovels/toys, and sometimes as many as a dozen or more items.

I did encounter a number of people regularly walking, running, collecting pebbles and rocks, fishing or setting up one of the summer beach camps, but there did not seem to be much competition for beach junk.  However, an early start was helpful to beat the beach tractor, a serious nemesis which swept the sand every morning, covering up and crushing shovels and toys.

In the course of gathering this mass of plastic objects, I made a number of observations. 

Yellow was easily the most popular color for shovels, while purple proved to be rare. 

The diversity of shovels, rakes, scoops, spades, strainers and other implements was astounding.  There are many variations on the shovel.  The typical shovel has a flat blade, handle reinforced with a zig-zag pattern in the back and a squared off ring at the top.  Others are bigger or smaller, have more of a rounded scoop or a round ring at the top (possibly to save plastic) and some are even made of two pieces of plastic.  The same variation applies to the other implements.  There were a few more creative designs.  The handles of one fairly common, if somewhat ugly, set of beach tools had a wood grain pattern.  More distinctive designs included a green shovel tool with a yellow snake on the handle and an orange spatula-like tool with a crab design printed on the blade (this turned out to be part of the Melissa & Doug "Seaside Sidekicks Sand Pizza Set").

Similarly, there were many "species" (designs) of sea animal toys in different sizes and colors.  Starfish, fish and turtles seem to be most common; I found fewer crabs and octopuses.  The colors can make for rather bizarre creations such as pink turtles and red whales.

While there is diversity, there is also homogenity.  Probably 90-percent of these items were made in China.

As the shovels and toys began to accumulate, the question of how to present them arose.  For my first shovel art piece, I arranged them according to the colors of the rainbow around a circular table, the shovels with blades facing out and the toys in the middle.  I avoided stacking the toys, leaving space for them to "breathe."  When the table filled up I continued to the chairs below and the floor underneath.

To produce pieces suitable for wall display, I will use fishing line to tie the shovels and toys to a durable fabric backing.  These pieces can be hosed off occasionally so they doesn't get dusty.  Another possible design is a crab net filled with the plastic toys.  A more complex three-dimensional piece could fill a space with the colorful plastic toys. For a more interactive project, it might be interesting to go to one of the summer beach camps and have a competition to see which of several groups can produce the most creative shovel artwork. 

Shovel art pieces are perfect for a beach house or cabana.  If you'd like to commission a piece, contact me...

UPDATE JULY 2018: After about six years, I now have about five large boxes of the shovels and toys sorted by color.  I am intrigued by the idea of putting on a Summer Shovel Spectacular performance art project.  The idea would be to produce several different designs with the aid of about ten to twelve kids.  For example, designs might include a rainbow bullseye (with purple in the center because there are the fewest of them), rainbow colored bands, and the various animals (crabs, fish, starfish grouped and framed by the shovels).  The kids would be divided into teams of two—a red team, an orange team... and so forth—responsible for setting out their box of shovels.  The whole production should be videoed from above using time lapse.  While the beach might seem a good location for this project, I think it would pack more impact if done on a plain white background, for example a canvas spread out on a floor.  What is needed is a project manager to figure out the venue, find the kids, settle on the date, and deal with other such logistical matters.

Eric M. Appleman
action08 @ gmail  . com