Retired firefighter and sculptor John Gowdy has sand in his shoes – and on the carpets of Atlantic City casinos.
Whether it’s at Resorts AC, where he crafted a Mr. Peanut in sand at the casino entrance, or the sand sculpture of a Monopoly board game designed on the casino floor, Gowdy’s works of art make casino visitors stop.
Who is John Gowdy? Let his sand work do the talking
To commemorate Resorts’ 45th anniversary this year, Gowdy was commissioned to create four sand sculptures, including a sand replica of Resorts International in the upstairs dining area and a lifeguard scene at the Boardwalk entrance.
At Tropicana Casino, Gowdy was recruited to use his sand sculpting as a team-building skill for employees.
“I taught them how to make a King Neptune head last year,” Gowdy said.
Harrah’s beach festival held years ago in the parking lot was the perfect space to create a mermaid scene with Harrah’s logo, he said. And, at Borgata last year, Gowdy created a replica in sand of the historic Steel Pier.
At the former Trump Taj Mahal, Gowdy once created a sand sculpture replica of a car that was given away to high rollers after a contest. Hard Rock International purchased the Trump Taj Mahal property in 2017, officially reopening it as Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in 2018 in AC.
“People seem to really enjoy the sculptures,” Gowdy said. “People will touch them and I repair them. The current ones at Resorts are there until I take them out.”
The sand Gowdy uses to create the casino sculptures comes from a quarry in Tuckahoe, Cape May County, located about 30 miles outside of Atlantic City.
“When it dries, it dries like a rock,” he said. “I made the Resorts sand creations in April, and they’re still standing up there (in October) even with people touching them.”
Awards, travel and sand sculpting paint a global recognition
Without a doubt, Gowdy, a former AC lifeguard and a graduate of Stockton University, isn’t your average sand sculptor.
His sculptures have won first-place awards around the world as both an amateur and a professional.
Gowdy won “Sand Wars” on the Travel Channel, created a sand replica for Pope Francis at the Vatican of the Pontiff’s Argentinian Cathedral, and has appeared on the syndicated Martha Stewart Show and the Discovery Channel.
His sculptures have been commissioned by the White House. Gowdy created a remembrance sculpture for the 65th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy Beach where 3,000 soldiers lost their lives. He created a sand sculpture of a soldier crawling onto Omaha beach at low tide, and as the tide came in the sculpture slowly washed away as families watched.
Gowdy also put together an international field of sculptures for England, Poland, the United States, Canada and France.
He retired as a Fire Captain in 2006 and moved to Italy.
But the sand in Gowdy’s shoes made him return to Atlantic City to create castles in the sand.
Gowdy hopes in 2024 he can convince a sponsor to help him hold a World Cup sandcastle competition at AC’s Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, formerly known as the historical Atlantic City Convention Hall.
The city’s former mayor, Whelan, Gowdy said, also served as a lifeguard, loved the AC beach and appreciated Gowdy’s sand sculpting.
“It’s a fitting tribute,” Gowdy said.
From the beginning: John Gowdy the firefighter
John began fighting fires in AC in 1980, just a few years after casino gambling was approved in 1977. He spent 27 years as an Atlantic City firefighter, retiring as a captain.
Gowdy, of Chelsea Heights, began sculpting in 1990 when his kids were young. He and his wife, Laura, learned that building sandcastles was a good way to entertain their little ones during the summers on the Albany Avenue beach.
“I had three kids, twin daughters and son,” Gowdy said, “and we would go to the beach at Albany and when they were 4-5-6 years of age, and the water was too rough to go in, I would bring a shovel to beach and dig holes and let them play in the groundwater.”
Gowdy picked up popsicle sticks with his children and started building sandcastles in the sand.
“It was amazing,” he said.
“People would gather and want to take part in it. It amazed me that this would happen at such an early stage. And I always liked talking to people and they wanted to join in. At the end of the day, we’d have a bunch of kids and adults joining in to build sandcastles, and it impressed me.”
‘The Rowdy Gowdy’s’ make a name for themselves
He organized family and friends into a group they called “The Rowdy Gowdy’s” and entered the Ocean City amateur sandcastle building event.
“We won some prizes as a family team,” he said.
In 1987, Gowdy said the former Golden Nugget at Sovereign Avenue at the Boardwalk in AC held a sandcastle contest. Gowdy, also a lifeguard, took part in that contest too.
“That one was more advanced. Basically, what I remember seeing at the Golden Nugget was some pretty good teams,” he said.
Gowdy won the Golden Nugget team event – and also caught the eye of a sand sculpting contest promoter from Fort Myers, Florida. The promotor ran the “American Championship of Sand Sculpting,” he said.
“And that’s where I joined the master sand sculpting category,” Gowdy said. “I jumped in with a shovel – and everyone else was showing up with suitcases and neckties,” he said.
Gowdy ended up winning the competition more than once. He also recalled the beauty of the former Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. “It was such a beautiful casino, I’m so ashamed it’s gone.”
Taking sand sculpting to Sin City
At one point Gowdy took his sculpting to Las Vegas, running a professional sand sculpting contest at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“I ran a master competition at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, which was a great event,” Gowdy said.
Gowdy’s job was to help keep visitors on the convention floor entertained. He and his team of 10 artists created sand sculptures, which they asked visitors to judge using one of their business cards to vote.
“We did an entry piece that would grab attention. We did Elvis and a big pizza with a pizza cutter since it was a pizza expo,” Gowdy recalled. “It was a people mover to get people to flow around the exterior of the convention floor and keep them there.”
Gowdy also sculpts for the Atlantic City Boat Show.
“I’ve had many designs and they’re all nautical,” Gowdy said. “I’ve created King Neptune, a big striper caught by a fisherman, a pirate scene, and mermaids.”
Sand sculpting world cup needs to come to AC
Gowdy hopes Atlantic City will embrace more sand sculpting events. After all, he said, sculpting sand got its start on AC beaches two centuries ago.
“It was an art form that started in 1897 and it’s pretty well documented,” Gowdy said. “There were guys who would carve sandcastles along the side of the first Boardwalk and they would work for coins that were tossed to them.”
Philip McCord is credited with making one of the very first sand sculptures in 1897, which was of a woman and her baby who had drowned.
Before it was dissolved, Gowdy said the Atlantic City Alliance ran the World Cup of Sand Sculpting that attracted 160,000 people each year in 2013 and 2014.
He wants to get the sand sculpting World Cup event back into AC.
“It’s only fitting that Atlantic City would have this event,” Gowdy said. “I remember 2014 was a bumper year and so many people came down and were right next to Steel Pier and in front of Hard Rock. It was just a great event and people were working on the exact beach where Philip McCord would work next to Steel Pier.”
Gowdy says he’s approached the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and other city officials to bring a national sand sculpting competition to Atlantic City.
“I am trying to look for someone who would help me bring the competition here,” Gowdy said.
“I need someone who is willing to finance it. It’s somewhat of a gamble, but it is my dream to have this World Championship of Sand sculpting in the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. I want to get this event going again.”