Peter Donnelly AKA the Sand Man, Sand Artist or Sand Dancer has been creating masterpieces besides the pier at New Brighton for more than 10 years.
Peter is a very well known character in New Brighton, Christchurch. You may see him on his bike; a silhouette of blackness and devilry. The bike is made in the “chopper” style, made famous by the film “Easy Rider”. Instead of a big polluting and noisy engine, Peter uses the power in his legs to keep his carbon footprint as small as possible. He looks awesome riding his bike silhouetted against the bright blue New Brighton sky. With his hat on and his big black overcoat billowing out behind, it is quite a sight to behold.
Before Peter starts work he removes his footwear and his overcoat. He always works in bare feet as he uses them to flatten marks or rough areas in the sand that he wants smooth and to prevent leaving imprints in the sand.
Carried on his bike and in his backpack are his various tools and equipment. Pulling out a purple cloth he lays it out near to the pier. It is held down, to guard against blowing away, by clumps of sand. Strangely, when you look closer at the sand, most have a series of crescent curls. Next a hat filled with sand is placed in the middle of the cloth. A number of Paua shells are laid out in a pattern close to what will be the lower edge of his sand painting. This is not their final resting place, as they will be placed into an area of smooth sand in the artwork when it is almost complete.
His cloth wrapped staff is his pencil to outline the edges of the shapes he will create.
The rake is his big brush used to create the darker areas. The clever thing is turning it on it’s back it can be an eraser smoothing out rough sand or removing an unwanted line.
It normally takes between three to four hours to make a design, which is around the time the tide takes to go out leaving a clean slate and when it returns to quickly remove the lovingly crafted masterpiece.
Most artists would sketch out the overall shape of their design in pencil and then paint over them and fill them with colour. Peter often works out from a low centre position and slowly works outwards. This is probably because he is not able to go back to the centre easily like an oil painter with a movement of his hand, but would have to jump from one smooth section of sand to the next.
Slowly the design grows outward and Northward. Occasionally he will return to his backpack for a drink of water, but as they say time and tide wait for no man.
The design is best appreciated looking down from the pier. As long as you do not get too close, you can wonder at seeing the sand flowing through the tines of the rake, as if like water.
The name Sand Dancer is due to the occasional flick of one leg when he creates curls and crescents in the sand. He can also pirouette as he creates small circles. He is sometimes like a ballerina when jumps from one smooth section to another.
When he is close to finishing he goes on his long walk around the painting to create encompassing loops.
Maybe at this time he is looking to spot any small flaws in the light and dark, areas. A final bit touching up and he is ready to move the Paua shells into their final position.
When he is finally satisfied with his work he will salute the crowd’s applause and cheers with upraised arms and then a deep bow.
At this point most performance artists would have rushed over and gathered up any monies thrown to them, but not the Sand Artist: He makes the long walk up to the pier, mingles and talks to anyone he meets. Finally he is able to look down from the height of the Pier to survey his latest and unique masterpiece.
He will take a picture for himself, but unfortunately his camera’s lens is not wide enough to fit the great width of the painting in. I have a 24mm lens and can just fit it in.
Often just as he is finished or sometimes even before, the tide creeps up and wave by wave resets his canvas.
The day you are most likely to see Peter Donnelly is on a Sunday. Do not be surprised if when the tide is right and the weather nice he comes down on another day to carve the sand for us.