Ray Villafane

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: Arts Issue: July 2016
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Ray Villafane really wants to talk about the elephant in the room – the one that began as an eight-foot-high, 25-ton mountain of silt from the Salt River. Along with Long Island-based artist Sue Beatrice, the Surprise-based sculptor, 47, spent 12 days in late May crafting the elephant. “We knew how much volume we wanted to make the sculpture, and an elephant seemed like the path of least resistance,” he says, without a hint of irony.  

The sand sculpture depicts an elephant playing chess with a mouse, and is striking with its life-size scale and details, like the tiny hairs on the elephant’s head, eyelashes and tail (made from palm frond fibers), and tree rings in the stump. A bulging bag of peanuts lies to one side, with some spilling out of the sack and one that appears to be floating in midair, as if falling from the elephant’s mouth. “It’s magic,” Beatrice says, before pointing to a small stick connecting the elephant and the peanut. “[Ray] is over the top, and he can do anything. In addition to his artistic talent, he’s great at creative problem-solving. That’s just one example.”

Beatrice and Villafane have worked together many times, but they’re usually carving pumpkins. Villafane’s anthropomorphic squash have been featured everywhere from the Food Network to The Guardian. Martha Stewart called him “the Michelangelo of pumpkin carving,” while the Wall Street Journal deemed him “the Picasso of pumpkin carving.” 

So let’s call him the Sendak of sand sculpting. He’s where all the wild things are. 

“Elephant and Mouse” will be on view in the Sanderson Lincoln Pavilion at Carefree Desert Gardens through the end of August. Visit villafanestudios.com for more information.