With Waves of Grains, Sand Sculptor Todd Vander Pluym Builds a Nativity Scene Two Stories High

UPDATED 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

For most American churches, this is the season for living nativity scenes and oversize crèches and seraphim-bedecked Christmas trees. Not for Hollywood's Hope Lutheran—an aesthetically adventurous congregation on trendsetting Melrose Avenue. In its capacious courtyard stands one of the most unorthodox tributes to the Christ Child in recent memory: a two-story, 75-ton rendition of the Holy Family sculpted in California sand. The peculiarly indigenous creation is expected to pack in tens of thousands of pilgrims before the season is over—and pump about $40,000 into a building fund set up after a 1983 arson attack burned Hope Lutheran to the ground.

The only-in-California artwork is the creation of Todd Vander Pluym II, a 46-year-old Redondo Beach man who is firmly established as the doyen of professional sand sculptors. Vander Pluym had wed Leonor Haisch in the church sanctuary in 1968, and she had attended Hope Lutheran as a child. When the sculptor heard that a firebomb had set off a wind-whipped conflagration at the church, he says, "I thought, 'God, I want to do something.' " His first eleemosynary effort was a 160-ton work called "The Old City of Jerusalem": The 18½-foot-high Holy City was displayed at the church last Easter and garnered $28,000 from 15,000 faithful who came to see it. Convinced that a Christmas-season sculpture would be an even bigger draw, Vander Pluym began constructing blueprints for the magnum opus that went into production on Nov. 14.

Like his other gargantuan projects, which include the world's longest sand castle (12 miles) and tallest (52 feet) out-door sand sculpture, the rendition of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was constructed with the help of a large cadre of assistants. The material was trucked in from a nearby reclamation project, which has the sort of cohesive sand (not too dry or windblown) needed for sculpting. As soon as it arrived, parishioners began making towering wooden supports. After soaking the sand with water and blending it through a cement mixer, 30 volunteers poured it onto the frame, tamped it with air hammers and allowed the mass to dry for a day. Vander Pluym—a hefty man who says he has sustained a fair number of broken bones pursuing his grand visions—then set about his 14-day sculpting job. Working with four helpers on a platform, he used melon scoopers, butter knives and ceramics tools to bring the group to life. "I nitpick at nuances," he says. "I carved one of Joseph's ears four times."

It was an imposing task, but one for which the native Californian has been preparing since the age of oh, 18 months. One of his earliest memories is of being at the beach and "having my father bitch at me because I was reaching through the playpen to get sand to build castles." At 8 he caused a 75-foot section of beach parking lot to cave in by digging sand tunnels under it. He says cops thought it was "some weird erosion" until his gear was found amid the debris. After studying architecture at El Camino College and fine arts at Long Beach State, he worked in a series of architectural firms and distinguished himself in international sand-sculpting competitions. Since 1980 he has created promotional behemoths (at up to $25,000 per) for clients such as IBM, Xerox and Ford.

Pastor Mark Rasbach hopes the Holy Family will bring in enough to pay for the finishing touches on the $1.3 million contemporary style church building begun in 1985. No matter how profitable it proves to be, it will not be trotted out again next year. And while some lament that temporal quality, Vander Pluym sees it as an advantage: "Nothing's here forever," he says. "It's the impermanence that draws people."

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