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

Karen Fralich has been a full-time professional sand sculptor since 2001

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

Little did she know it would set her on a path toward 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 done, Fralich said the owner asked her to stay on to learn more, which she did, eventually meeting a professional sand sculptor who asked her to help with a sculpting project at a mall.

"The second I started playing with the sand, I was addicted," she said.

Immediately, Fralich wondered how she could turn it into a career and honed her craft over the next four years while working a day job.

In 1998, she qualified for her first world championship competition in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia.

"From there, (my network) just exploded," Fralich said. "Up until then, I had only known the guy who was teaching me. When I went to Harrison Hot Springs, there must have been 60 very experienced sculptors from all over the world there."

She started getting invited to be part of more projects and contests, and by 2001, sand sculpting was her full-time job.

It's taken her all over the world, competing at the highest level, judged on the originality of her work, the difficulty and the wow factor.

Those elements are what she's using to judge work in the second season of the CBC show Race Against the Tide

Competitors are on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick – home of the highest tides in the world – and the 10 teams of two people are tasked with completing sculptures in six hours.

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

And these aren't your average sand castles using small buckets either.

"When you're at the beach, it might be 20 lbs to 300 lbs of sand you're working with," Fralich said.  "The piles that we're working with are about 10 to 20 tonnes of sand, and the compaction process will make your sand sculpture between eight and 10 feet tall."

Over her career, Fralich has created a number of unique pieces, taking inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, even under a cap of a bottle of cider years ago.

"The trivia on this particular bottle said 'somewhere in Iowa, people knit for prizes,'" she said.

"I just thought that was hilarious, and so I did duelling grannies furiously knitting in a knitting contest (as a sculpture)."

Her work was also featured at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 2019, when she sculpted a piece in honour of the NBA champion Toronto Raptors.

The 53-year-old, who moved back to Guelph in 2015 with her husband, is still enjoying herself, and hopes to continue shovelling and creating new pieces of sand art for a long time to come.

Fralich encourages anyone looking to give it a go on sand sculpting to try at least once.

"It's not for everyone, but if you love it, you'll really love it," she said. "Just go to the beach, get a big pile of sand and get some stuff from the kitchen, like knives, forks and spoons and just try your hand at it. 

"You'll know pretty quickly whether 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 just have fun and think outside of the box."


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Mark Pare

About the Author: Mark Pare

Originally from Timmins, ON, Mark is a longtime journalist and broadcaster, who has worked in several Ontario markets.
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