The art of sprawl

On his day off from the graveyard shift at Xerox, Frank Hibrandt expands his kingdom.

His empire now numbers 24 concrete sandcastles, all painted yellow. They pop up on the landscape unbidden, ubiquitous and, by the artist’s own admission, ugly. He drops these beer-bottle tall blocks when the mood strikes and where landowners allow. One weekend he plops three down on a porch. A week later he strikes again with two on a sidewalk.

By the time Hibrandt’s unusual kingdom reaches build-out, few will travel through Gulfport without noticing it. His goal is to post 101 of the identical sandcastles throughout the city by September, with permission from property owners but without broader public notice.

“What happens after 101 (sandcastles) start cluttering up the place?” Hibrandt said of his
project. “This is sprawl. One might be cute. Two might be cute. But 101?”

When he’s not making art, Hibrandt copies reports for Xerox at a research facility in Oldsmar, 40 miles north of Gulfport. As he has commuted over the years, he was disturbed by the proliferation of cookie-cutter subdivisions and chain restaurants.

So he decided to make a statement through art. He will sprawl the basketball-sized castles through town to make people consider the effect of sprawl.

Hibrandt chose sandcastles because they represent a child’s dreams the way moving to Florida represents the dream of many adults. He places them a few at a time without warning because he says that’s how sprawl creeps in. And he will paint all 101 a dull yellow because sprawl usually happens with a lack of design and aesthetics, he says. Yellow’s also the color of caution.

How to build concrete sandcastles

The guerilla art project started with three castles in front of his home in early May. Sandcastles now sit in front of many of his neighbors’ buildings in this Florida beach town. A few dot the walkway that leads to his favorite coffee shop, and five more adorn the brick patio of Beach Boulevard South’s Art Courtyard.

It’s 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning and Hibrandt, 54, has forced himself out of bed after four and a half hours sleep. With bags under his eyes, he drives to Home Depot and buys an 80-pound bag of concrete. Hibrandt hauls it into the back yard of his apartment on Beach Boulevard South.

He rewards himself with a cigarette before he dons a pair of thick, bright orange rubber gloves to continue construction of sandcastles. Hibrandt has little experience with concrete, and it shows. He stabs the bag of powder with a spoon handle and rips an opening 2 feet long.

Prefab sandcastle molds from Wal-Mart shape the artist’s design. He sprays the inside of these molds with butter-scented cooking spray to lubricate them.

Hibrandt doesn’t enjoy making the castles — he despises concrete work. But he continues because he really likes the idea of representing sprawl with sprawl.

Hibrandt has spent much of his life driven by passion. As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, he hawked binoculars outside the theaters on Broadway. He eventually worked his way up to backstage manager at Carnegie Hall. He moved to Florida some 20 years ago to guest lecture in the University of South Florida’s Department of Fine Art after he took a job interview on a lark.

He found academia bad fit: too much ego, too little passion. So he took a job at Xerox to pay the bills and studied visual arts in his spare time.

Over the past decade, he has worked to expand the city’s art scene by placing works in gas station bathrooms and other places where typically uninterested parties had to face them.
Local artists also say he often travels to Europe to collect information on the international art scene. His devotion to art is matched by his devotion to Gulfport.

“What have we done to Florida these days?” Hibrandt said. “We’ve paved it all over.”

And thus, his defiant sandcastles.

Metria Jones, who rents Hibrandt a room, hears him outside on weekends working and cursing himself for his commitment. He pours the concrete on Saturday, paints the sandcastles on Tuesday and Thursday. “By Friday I start wondering, ‘What am I, crazy?’ ” he says.

Who wants a castle?

Scott Alan drinks coffee at an Internet cafe on Beach Boulevard South that has nine yellow castles in front of it.

“To me, it just looks like a kid left his Legos laying around,” Alan says.

Jessica Behrendt and her 5-year-old daughter Kealey occasionally spend evenings on the porch of their apartment building, where they can see three of Hibrandt’s sandcastles. They have wondered for weeks what the yellow blocks mean.

“These three look OK,” Jessica says, after learning about the project. “101? I don’t think I’d like that. That would be ugly.”

Precisely his point.

On this particular Saturday, Hibrandt pours eight more castles before he hits the streets with five freshly dried sculptures from last weekend. He strides into Reef Dog Gifts and Grooming on Beach Boulevard South with a pair tucked under his arms.

“Are we getting sandcastles?” store owner Mary O’Malley asks as soon as she sees him.

O’Malley has noticed the castles around town and is quick to grant permission.

Hibrandt always places his castles on private property, and only after asking the owner. That has allowed him to ward off complaints from city officials. Jim O’Reilly, the Gulfport director of leisure services, says he appreciates Hibrandt’s work even if it seems avant-garde.

“It always gets you talking and that’s what it’s supposed to do,” he says.

And some folks here are eager to join Hibrandt’s kingdom. Ellen Biegler, a retiree who moved to Gulfport years ago from New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood, asked for a sandcastle in front of her house after Hibrandt told her about the project.

“I like it,” Biegler said. “I think it’s different. Everybody else is going to get one. I don’t want to be left out. If I don’t get one, I’ll make my own.”

Hibrandt places the fifth and final castle for Saturday in front of a small business on the east end of Beach Boulevard South.

Twenty-four down. Seventy-seven to go.

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