Sand sculptor David Rotter at work on one of his sandcastle creations. Credit: Erika Perez/Block Club Chicago

UPTOWN — Typical beach activities include sunbathing, swimming and playing volleyball. Sometimes you’ll find an occasional sandcastle built by a kid. But when you walk down the shoreline on Montrose Beach, you might spy something much more unusual: a sandcastle that’s at least 5 feet tall.

When 54-year-old David Rotter of Uptown builds one of his sandcastle creations, it all starts with a little pile of sand and people giving him weird stares. 

“I’m this grown man playing with sand,” Rotter said.

As the tower gets taller and begins to take shape, people notice and respect it a bit more, he said.

“At first I thought it was going to be something small,” beachgoer Rosa Ramirez said. “But then I saw him bringing out the shovel and the other tools and I started thinking this is going to be much bigger than I expected.”

Rotter, who posts his sandcastles on TikTok as davetheartist1, has been going to Montrose Beach for years to enjoy his favorite summer hobby. He said he’s been making the sandcastles for 20 years, and although the process takes several hours, the smiles he gets from admirers of the finished structure is worth it. 

“I was always kinda striving for better, but I realized the process was relaxing,” he said. “I haven’t been able to find any other medium that provides me with the sounds of the lake.”

Rotter’s interest in sandcastle-making began as an activity to keep his kids entertained when he took them to the beach. One day, he found a plastic trowel-like tool. He started making right angles and was fascinated by the malleability of the sand. 

Rotter said the hardest part is building the foundation or as he calls it, “the pile.” 

“When I saw just a pile of sand, I didn’t expect it to turn into a castle,” onlooker Jose Sanchez said. “I see patience is key in turning something so basic like sand to look beautiful.”

Midway through the build, Rotter takes a break to create the textures and designs for the castle. He uses cake spatulas and other small items from his kitchen and house to help shape his creations.

“As an artist, you learn how to use different tools,” Rotter said.

Credit: Erika Perez
Some of Rotter’s castle-making tools.

As he continues to advance his sandcastle skills, Rotter said the best tools are homemade. If he can’t find them, he relies on tools from craft stores. 

His arsenal includes wooden paint spatulas and thin cake knives so his fingers don’t come into contact with what he is sculpting. 

“I like how he’s really getting into detail. He’s been carving out the windows and making them very precise,” said Ramirez.

No matter how many breaks Rotter takes, people usually wait for him to finish sculpting. As soon as he’s done, they start taking pictures of the finished castle. It makes for a unique photo op.

“I was going to stay for only a few hours at the beach, but I think I’ll stay longer to see the finished result,” Sanchez said.

Rotter said he enjoys the hobby because he’s not stuck in a studio creating art. He’s outdoors where the crashing of the waves, the chatter of beachgoers and the cries of seagulls come together like music. 

“The culmination makes a particular sound to your brain that is soothing. All of it at once puts me in such a trance where I have pinpoint focus,” Rotter said. “The environment has a calmness a studio won’t give me.”

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