Most people visit the beach, build a sand castle and retire their shovels until their next vacation. Not Gloucester Township resident Karl Wirtz. Many years ago, after building a sand sculpture for his then-4-year-old daughter, Wirtz discovered he possessed a real talent.
Before long, he was sculpting for the public at his children’s school, the Garden State Discovery Museum and special events including Beach Fest in Atlantic City and the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival, where he’s become a mainstay. This year’s Oct. 7 event will mark the 15th time Wirtz has sculpted at the Pumpkin Festival.
“When I did that first sculpture on the beach, I realized that I had the ability to visualize an image in the pile of sand and release it, in the same way a wood sculptor releases carvings from a piece of wood. I began making all kinds of animals, dolphins, penguins and polar bears,” Wirtz said.
Last year, he designed the Phillie Phanatic leaning on a pumpkin for the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival.
“Someone suggested to me that I ought to do it because the Phillies were in the playoffs. I’d never sculpted the Phanatic before so I figured it would be a new challenge,” Wirtz said.
Throughout the day at each Pumpkin Festival, hundreds of folks stop to admire Wirtz’s art. He invites children to smooth out some sand, or to pose and pretend they’ve built the sculpture. He offers them tips such as, “Always use mud and not damp sand when you’re sculpting.”
“I’ve been a vendor at the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival for many years now. Each year I enjoy seeing the amazing sand sculptures that Karl creates," Ronni Smith, of Marlton, said. "We’ve made it a tradition to take a picture of my son, Timmy, in front of the sand sculpture each year. It’s fun to look back to see all the different designs over the years.”
Detailed sand sculptures can take an entire day to create; however, the Pumpkin Festival is a five-hour event. Wirtz often works overnight preparing his art.
“Every year we look forward to seeing Karl's amazing creations. Last year the kids insisted on delivering him donuts and hot chocolate at night as he worked feverishly to sculpt. They loved talking to him and learning about his art and what inspires him,” said Beth Morgan, of Gloucester Township.
Sometimes Wirtz is inspired simply by the theme of the event where he’s carving, other times by popular culture or an image that comes to his mind. At the 2001 Pumpkin Festival, Sept. 11. weighed heavily on his mind, so Karl sculpted the image of the three firemen raising the flag at the World Trade Center’s ruins.
“I don’t have a favorite from all my sculptures. Since I create them, I love all of them. However, that sculpture honoring the World Trade Center heroes and victims was very memorable," Wirtz said. "I added a bit of wood glue to water and mixed it in the sculpture to help it last a little longer. No one destroyed it and it lasted into November. It was like there was something sacred about it. I’d run into people and they’d tell me that it was amazing that the sculpture was still there.”
Interacting with people who appreciate his art is one of the things Wirtz enjoys most about events like the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival. If you attend this year’s event on Oct. 7, be sure to stop by and say hello. He’ll be working in the driveway area between Norman Chew Florist and Academy Hall—Mainstage Center for the Arts' new home.
The 21st annual Blackwood Pumpkin Festival, presented by Mainstage Center for the Arts and sponsored by Beneficial Bank and Elauwit Media, takes place along and around the Black Horse Pike in Blackwood, NJ.
In addition to Beneficial Bank and Elauwit Media, the Blackwood Pumpkin Festival is sponsored by: PNC Bank; Bowman and Company LLP; Mayor David Mayer and Gloucester Township Council; Comegno Law Group PC; Joseph W. Bowley CPA; Castor Auto & Truck Repair; Garden State Discovery Museum; Senator Madden, Assemblyman Moriarty, Assemblywoman Mosquera; Dr. Sullivan & Dr. Turner LLC; Gloucester Township Chamber of Commerce; Camden County Regional Chamber of Commerce; Blackwood West Development; Township of Gloucester; Camden County College; New Jersey State Council on the Arts; National Endowment for the Arts; Sign & Design; Gloucester Township-Blackwood Rotary Public Library; Rite Aid; Spacemart; Sports Specialties; Blackwood Lake Development; Chews Florist; and Preferred Party Rental.
Stacy Napolitano is Mainstage Center for the Arts' public relations professional.