Written in the sand

Sep 30, 2023

Andrew van der Merwe, a South African beach calligrapher, gave a presentation on his beach calligraphy at the Wareham Public Library the evening of Friday, Sept. 29. 

Van der Merwe showed pictures and videos of the calligraphy he does on beaches. 

He writes words, names and symbols in the sand, using found objects as well as specially constructed tools. 

Calligraphy commonly takes place in more durable mediums than sand. Van der Merwe showed examples of his work in more traditional calligraphic mediums, including ornate lettering for presentations, design work for logos and handwritten props for movies. 

The beach, and the philosophy behind writing in a non-permanent medium, has a special importance for van der Merwe. 

"I am convinced, and there's absolutely no way of proving it, that writing must have begun in sand," he said. 

Van der Merwe drew a comparison between hunters reading animal tracks and the foundations of writing. It seemed an easy leap between reading marks in the sand and making marks intentionally, he said. 

Some of his own earliest exploration of calligraphy came with drawing in the sand, Van der Merwe said.

"How can you encounter a stretch of beautiful, clean beach and not write in it?" he said. 

The sand of the beach proved a unique medium for the calligraphic art. The videos and photos van der Merwe showed of his work cataloged all the ways sand responds to tools, the ways it stands up in ridges and comes away in gouges. 

Eventually, the words and symbols van der Merwe writes in the sand disappear, erased by the wind or the tide. That, too, is a part of why he does it, he said: like the mandalas of sand created and swept away by Tibetan monks, writing on the sand teaches detachment. 

"Facing death can often lay out the heart of a person's character," van de Merwe said. 

To see van de Merwe's works, visit @beachscriber on Tiktok or Instagram.