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Sand sculputre broadens man's horizons

"As a boy, Michael Velling did as he was told. While his brother regularly argued with their strong-willed father, Velling strove to do what his parents wanted. He got good grades. He avoided fights at school. He attended church. He didn't swear.By age 11, he accepted his father's dream that he be a dentist like his Uncle Roy and charged after it with the singlemindedness of an ant on a mission.In junior high and high school, he took all the science classes he could and made sure he excelled at them. Velling, now 49, attended college and later Northwestern Dental School in Michigan. His sole goal consisted of opening his own dental practice.I went along with the system, Velling said. I was a good, all-American boy.But when he completed an advanced degree in dentistry in 1977 and opened his own general practice in 1979, he felt emptiness more than elation. For so long, he considered everything in his life that didn't help him achieve his goal to be superfluous.In the years after graduating with a master's degree, he started to realize that to be a complete, happy person, he needed a never-ending string of goals and more in his life than just his career. There was a whole other side of life that had to be learned that didn't come in a program, Velling said, that didn't come with an itinerary.Velling began broadening his interests. Sand sculpting sits chief among those new interests. He began sculpting sand into everything from elephants to cherubs 11 years ago.He recently competed as part of his team, Hard Sand Cafe, at sand sculpting contests in Cannon Beach, Ore., and Ocean Shores, Wash. Velling and fellow team members will demonstrate their skills to Federal Way residents at Family Fest, held Aug. 26 and 27 at Steel Lake Park. His approach toward sand sculpting helped him develop his multi-dimensional approach toward life.Sculpting, whether clay or sand, taught me to be a three-dimensional thinker, he said. That's a big change from Velling's childhood, when he walked a path that never veered from his solitary purpose. He made sure other interests never got in the way of his primary drive, though he did pursue them.As a kid, Davy Crockett fantasies filled his imagination and he built fort after fort in the woods and next to the creek near his family's home in a Chicago suburb.I could hardly live a day without building one, he said. My dream was to be the explorer, the woodsman.In his first physical education class in eighth grade, his outdoors skills proved inadequate compared to the other boys' experience running and hitting and throwing balls.A gangly youth, he towered over his classmates but struggled to coordinate his arms and legs. He was often one of the last students picked when it came time for kids to pick their team members.But Velling studied athletes in motion and began to mimic their easy grace. He never felt entirely comfortable with football, baseball and other team sports, but by high school, he participated in swimming, tennis and track.In sand sculpting, Velling has achieved the success he never found as an athlete. Eleven years ago, he heard about a two-day sand sculpting event and thought it might be fun. When he arrived on the second day, the event was finished but he met one of the co-authors of The Art of Sand Sculpture, a book that became my Bible.To be able to take something - an amorphous and monochromatic pile of sand - and to turn it into something and give meaning and life to it fascinated me, he said. It represents a freedom.He soon formed his own sand sculpting team, Hard Sand Cafe, which has won a number of first places for creations at beach contests in Washington and Oregon.The team, which loses a few members and gains a few members every year, took first place at the World Championship sand sculpture competition in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., in 1993 and 1997. The team took second in 1998.In September 1999, several team members couldn't make it to the annual World Championship because of health reasons. Velling decided to compete in the solo category and do the entire design the team would have done. His sculpture featured one gold miner with a handful of gold, two more miners exiting the mine shaft, and a rabbit and raccoon scampering from the men's tent.Fran Velling, Michael's wife and a member of the team, says her husband is modest about his sculpting accomplishments, even though he's a three-time world champion sand sculptor.Sand sculpting enables her husband to satisfy his creative side, she said. Growing up, he was not encouraged to be in arts in any way, she said. Coming into it late in life then he appreciates every minute he's out there. On a recent afternoon, Velling worked on a circus-motif sculpture in the 16-by16-foot sand box he built for himself in his front yard. With a carving tool, he gently scraped away excess sand to form an elephant balancing on a beach ball.Ironically, the skills needed for the career he single-mindedly pursued mirror those needed for the hobby that helped expand his life beyond dentistry. You carve teeth exactly the same way you carve sand, he said. I'd been practicing sand sculpting for years and didn't know it. My dentistry helped my sand sculpting and sand sculpting helped my dentistry.Working with teeth and working with sand both require a gentle touch. If you carve (sand) the wrong way, it'll crack on you, he said. The same could be said for Velling's caution as he carves out a cavity.But Velling said he's no longer cautious about exploring all life has to offer. I took the attitude life is a smorgasbord, Velling said. I want to taste every bit of it on the table. "

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