Beach Provides a Canvas for Landscape Art

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Zalan Szabo’s sand raking in Heisler Park attracted many admirers on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29. Photo by Sharon McNair
Zalan Szabo’s sand raking in Heisler Park attracted many admirers on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29. Photo by Sharon McNair

Zalan Szabo departed from his home in Laguna Niguel in darkness on Memorial Day to take advantage of a low tide and pursue his unusual hobby.

On the wave-smoothed sands below Heisler Park’s Monument Point, Szabo said it took him about two hours to cover a football-field sized section of beach with fanciful designs by using a leaf rake to score the sand.

The results delighted local resident Sharon McNair, one of many who attended the Exchange Club’s holiday pancake breakfast in the park. “I thought it was just a creative process to entertain people,” said McNair, who marveled at how the artist managed the feat without leaving footprints behind.

“Druids, that’s what came to my mind,” said McNair, trying to puzzle out if the shapes on the sand derived from pagan symbols. “It’s really different.”

Szabo, a native of Hungary who immigrated in 1998, owns a carpet and upholstery cleaning business based in Oceanside. He doesn’t consider himself an artist, though he does play cello occasionally. His artistic sand raking evolved from a contest he entered unsuccessfully in 2015 where he took a cleaning product to the beach and drew some lines around it.

Online, Szabo discovered a community of land artists such as Jim Denevan, who use natural materials to create temporary massive-scale drawings, like one he did on Main Beach in 2013 as a Laguna Art Museum commission. “I’m surprised I didn’t hear about it before,” said Szabo, who is proud to count snow artist Simon Beck among his 301 followers on Instagram.

Over the past two years, Szabo’s rake designs have embellished coastlines from Laguna Beach to La Jolla. It takes a rare combination of variables to find the perfect canvas: low tide, kelp free, little foot traffic and free time. The designs, he says, are mostly spontaneous.

“Dogs are my arch enemy,” said Szabo, who sometimes must change a design to compensate for sand disturbed by a four-legged intruder.

When he completes a pattern, Szabo finds an overlook and shoots a time-stamped image, which he uploads to Instagram. “I don’t want something else claimed about it,” said Szabo, who frequently fields questions from beach goers, some of whom are skeptical he alone could devise the intricate marks on the land. On Monday, for example, he corrected a woman he overheard telling someone the beach pattern was done by an itinerant Japanese artist. “I just spent two hours doing this,” Szabo said he told her.

Some admirers compare his work to the sand mandalas Buddhist monks painstakingly create and then destroy. Szabo disagrees. Though he likes raking in darkness with the murmurs of waves as his soundtrack, the task isn’t relaxing. After three hours, he’s worn out and down three pounds.

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