Sand Art; from a forbidden hobby to a refined passion

Shabana Gupta, Staff Writer

Sand Art or Ramel, meaning sandbox, was originally practiced in the desert where sand was abundant. The sand would be ground into a fine powder and dyed with brilliant colors using natural ingredients and minerals. With this sand and years of practice, people learned how to create detailed drawings within bottles of sand, creating animals, faces, and scenery with startling accuracy.

Mohammad Ghnem has used sand art as his main medium since 2008. “Pretty much anything you want, it can be done in sand,” Ghnem said. “I have a friend, he used to sign his signature in the sand.”

Ghnem focuses on animals and scenery. Camels are his ‘signature’ when he creates a bottle. “Camel is the easiest and the fastest, which is why I do it,” Ghnem said. “Takes about five minutes to make [a bottle] this small”

It took Ghnem eight months to teach himself how to create detailed scenery. In his old store, there was a man who made the sand bottles. “The old guy, he was grumpy and he doesn’t want to teach me anything,” Ghnem said.

Teaching sand art causes a large waste of expensive sand, and the man was not willing to sacrifice. “It was my store, my sand, I buy it, he makes it,” Ghnem said. “But he was so grumpy I didn’t want to deal with him.”

Ghnem had a solution. “When you do it like a business, and you make so many bottles each day, it’s like if you drive for hours,” Ghnem said. “You get sleepy because you’re concentrating on one thing.”

When the old man fell asleep after working, Ghnem would set up a work area with each bowl of colored sand separated in front of him, and all the necessary tools within reach. “I wasted so much time, but I cleaned it, I hid it, and he never knew,” Ghnem said.

Before moving to Iowa, Ghnem used sand from the desert. “We use machines to make it very fine and soft,” Ghnem said.

This is necessary in order for the sand to resist holding space for air. If sand is able to shift in the bottle, the fine details of the image will be ruined or appear smudged. In the bottles Ghnem makes, he packs the sand together so the bottle can be shaken without any sand being disrupted.

The sand is colored in every variation. Now, it is too expensive for Ghnem to purchase imported sand in the same bulk. “Here, it’s easier to go to Hobby Lobby to get it,” he said.

The sand is similar enough to what he is used to that Ghnem had few problems switching.

Sand art has gotten popular in the Middle East and China. What most Americans are exposed to in areas such as the Iowa State Fair is a starting point. Ghnem’s practice needs more tools for adding detail work and more though concerning where to place the sand. It took Ghnem three years before he was confident in his skill.