New York City

My Sand Story

I had been successful as a mural painter for many years, including painting murals for Godiva Chocolatier, the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas, a Disney theme park in Tokyo, and many more great projects. I returned from Tokyo in 2001, and just a few days before 9/11, I had a terrible accident at the mural studio, which was just a few blocks from the Twin Towers. I was working on a scaffolding and turned my face into the side of a moving industrial ceiling fan... the accident was very bad, and I was lucky to be alive. My face was all smashed up and I had to have reconstructive surgery on my face. My brain had been rattled... something opened up in my mind.

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A few days later, I was home recovering, with a cast on my face, and looked out the window to see the second plane hit the WTC. It was traumatizing for the whole world. But, more so for me. Just 6 months earlier, I had worked as a dancer at a weekly party at Windows on the World, on top of the WTC. So, I was feeling very, very fragile.


I had been interested in Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, from having just been in Japan. I had some time on my hands recovering, so the very next day thought it might be a good idea to start studying Buddhism. I then became interested in Tibetan sand mandalas.


I started studying fractal geometry and quantum physics and many other philosophies. I realized that something was different about my brain. I started to be able to make different kinds of connections. The accident had made me smarter. I then heard of something called Acquired Savant Syndrome, a rare syndrome which happens to people with head injuries. I believed this had happened to me.

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Soon after, I saw a video by a Hungarian sand animation artist on YouTube and chills went up my spine. In my mind, I could see myself up there doing it…. Several years later, in 2010, when I was seeking work, an acquaintance mentioned that sand art was something desirable for events. Again I got chills... I immediately started building my sand box and spent a year teaching myself. I believe the accident enabled me with the skills to do this very advanced art form.


The new connections in my brain gave me the ability to work with both hands and much more. After a year of struggling to learn sand art, I put a video up on YouTube, and a week later was hired by Cirque du Soleil for the after show party they had for their Zarkana show, which was originally in NYC. My career just took off after that and I've been working as a sand artist ever since.


Birth of a Sand Artist

People often ask me how I got into making sand animations. It probably started for me in childhood, before I ever thought about a career in the arts...

I loved to watch PBS programs, particularly because of the artistic content. As a child, I loved all things art related. On Sesame Street, I saw an animation of two sand men throwing a sand ball back and forth on a light box. There was also a sand alphabet animated on Sesame Street. I was fascinated. In the summertime, on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, I would draw images in the sand, and wipe them away, trying to mimic those animations. I closed my eyes and faced the sun... and wished I could draw in the sand forever.

Later, I enjoyed watching International Film Festival animations on PBS. Every year the winners in the short animation category were broadcast. I loved watching them over and over. I told my mother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I dreamt that I lived in New York. I started making flip book animations. 

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I did become an artist when I grew up. I moved to New York City and found work creating window displays and also painting murals. I learned as I went along. Eventually, I landed jobs as a mural painter on big projects both nationally and internationally. I really enjoyed the work. I became very good at lettering and sign painting as well, which became useful skills later on.

While on a scaffolding, working on a large scale mural, I had an accident. I suffered from a head injury. A week later 9/11 happened. I needed something to ease my physical and emotional pain. I was out of commission for awhile healing, and feeling very vulnerable, so I started studying Buddhism. 

An artist friend of mine recommended a video to me that she had seen on something new called the internet. We had been talking about the Buddhist concept of impermanence and ephemeral art. It was a live animation by a Hungarian artist. He was creating sand animations on a light box, but as a live performance. An electric shock went through my body... I remembered how much I loved those animations from my childhood, and I had a flash vision of myself up there doing the performance. I had goosebumps. I watched it over and over.

As the internet grew in popularity, and YouTube came along, I saw a Ukrainian girl's sand animation performance getting passed around on Facebook. I started wondering if this art form was something for me to try.

Time passed, and the economy collapsed. Mural painters were out of work, due to advances in digital technology and the trend of minimalism. I needed something new to do. A co-worker mentioned sand animation and how desirable the art form was becoming. I decided in that moment to give it a try. I knew I had the skills necessary and I liked the idea of working with technology.

I spent a year researching, watching sand animation videos, and trying many different materials. I built my own sand table in my studio. It took me several months just to learn to move the sand. I also had to learn digital editing for music and film. It was a difficult process and I almost gave up. But, eventually, with a lot of practice and some patience, I created my first sand animation video and put it up on YouTube. A week later I was scouted to perform for the opening night after party for Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana show at Roseland in New York City.

The rest is history...

A Sandbox of Stories

(Re-posted from 07/14/2014)

"A Sandbox of Stories"


Caithlin Pena

She stands in a darkened room, a sandbox with light underneath filled with sand in front of her, a mounted camera projecting the images onto the screen behind her. Her dark hair is clipped neatly on the back, her fingers devoid of rings. “I Just Fall In Love Again” by the Carpenters filled the space as she takes two handfuls of golden sand and, like a baker working with flour, sprinkles them onto the lighted glass. When the glass becomes lightly covered, she begins to create. 

Simple lines at first, forming the silhouettes of buildings. Then she brushes the excess sand back to the sides. She is going to need them later. She dots her fingers down the buildings, two-by-two, creating windows. Soon, the buildings all have glowing windows, provided for by the light underneath the sandbox. 

Grabbing another two handfuls of sand from the sides of the box, she lightly sprinkles the sand on the space above the buildings, creating the night sky. Next comes the stars as she dots her fingers across the sand on top of the buildings. A moon comes next, a lone crescent in the starry sky. Her eyes does not leave the lighted glass of the projector, her brow deep in concentration as she continues to brush her fingers across the surface, sprinkling more sand, pressing against the sand, drawing on the sand. Soon, she has created a road, a car, the heads of a man and a woman kissing under the light of the moon and stars. It’s a nice picture. You think it’s over, that the performance is done, and that the piece is finished.

In an unexpected twist, she brushes away the buildings, the car, the stars, and the moon, simply leaving the two lovers on the glass pane. She sprinkles more sand on the empty space before pressing her fists against the sand, creating a wavy pattern. Taking one more handful of sand, she carefully sprinkles on the tiny silhouettes of a man and a woman, standing on top of their larger counterparts, holding hands. A heart and some rays of sun later, she finishes the piece to the end of the song with two words on the top, left side corner, “Be Mine.” And then, the video ends. That piece of sand animation is titled, “Valentine,” created, performed, and filmed and posted online by Charlene Lanzel, a dark-haired, bright-eyed woman with magic hands. 

Lanzel is a freelance artist of various art forms. One of her specialties is performing sand animation, a performance that requires weeks of preparation for a five minute performance. 

Lanzel discovered sand animation when she became interested in Buddhist philosophy. In 2004, a friend and fellow artist sent her a video of Ferenc Cakó, a Hungarian film artist, who invented the live art form.

On a Tumblr blog created by Cakó fans, the biography states that he started doing sand animation in 1988, along with clay animation, which won him a Gold Palm in Cannes that year. In 1996, Cakó performed sand animation live and with music for the first time. 

Sand animation, or sand art, is performed in total darkness using a sand box with a light. A camera projects the image in the sand box onto the projector screen, showing the audience a variety of images. The only tools used are sand and the artist’s own two hands. The animation is normally accompanied by music.    

“I just fell in love,” she said. “I was just so drawn to it, and I could actually picture myself up there doing it.”

Before she was a sand artist, Lanzel painted murals. Born in Wisconsin to visual artist parents, she was exposed to various forms of visual art such as drawing, painting, and ceramics. She moved to New York when she was 20 years old and began her career as a professional artist. She worked in the art department of Unique Clothing Warehouse, a center for fashion in the 1980’s. She became the Art Director until the store finally shut down in 1991. She then became a freelance mural artist.

“I’ve been an artist all my life,” she said.

She later began working for Silver Hill Atelier, a mural painting company in New York, where she had the chance to travel nationally and internationally and paint murals for various places and companies. Her works were featured in restaurants, casinos, amusement parks, and even residential homes. She even worked on murals for Godiva Chocolatier and two Disneyland parks: Disneyland Tokyo and Disneyland Hong Kong.

“I was doing really well as a mural painter,” she said. 

Lanzel also had a brief history in performing in a cabaret show.

“At night, I was a showgirl,” she fondly recalled. 

The emergence of digital technology eventually affected the business of mural painters, including Lanzel. With art being done digitally in this new age, she wanted to try something new and different. This is when sand animation entered her life once more in 2010. 

“And then I remembered this art form and how much I loved it,” she said. “So I thought ‘let me give it a try and see if it’s something I can do for a living.’”

So, in her own little studio, Lanzel built her own wooden sand box attached to a light box and a camera. She taught herself the art through experimentation with different styles and techniques. She was a master by the time 2011 came around and began posting videos of herself performing on Youtube. It was a perfect match. 

“The sand art brought together my art work and my performance into one thing,” she said. 

Within weeks of posting her first video, Cirque du Soleil, one of the biggest theatrical producers in the world of circus arts and street entertainment, found her video. The company invited her to perform for the opening party of Zarkana, Cirque du Soleil’s famous acrobatic show. 

“That was my first gig,” she said. “I was really nervous, especially because it was Cirque du Soleil.”

Performing for a large crowd was not a first time experience for Lanzel, but nonetheless, it was a wonderful feeling. One video was all it took for her career to take off. 

“I felt so lucky,” she said. 

Lanzel said that there are only a handful of professional performance artists for sand animation in the world who can perform live. Two can be found in the United States. Lanzel is one of them.

“It’s quite rare,” she said. “You can watch videos online, but it’s very rare to see an actual live performance.”

Back in 2012, sand animation was featured on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” where an artist from Richmond, Joe Castillo, made it to the semi-finals with his live performance. Another sand artist, Kseniya Simonova, was also on “Got Talent” in Ukraine back in 2009, where she won the competition after performing sand animation live.

Sand animation is not simply drawing pictures in the sand as you would at the beach. According to Lanzel, it is “a very meditative art form.”

“It requires me to really go deeply within myself to kind of conjure the story,” she said. “I have to be able to not only create a nice image, that image also has to be able to transform into another scene.”

In the case of her “Valentine" piece, it started off with a perfect night in the city, calm and romantic. The final piece was not this calm, romantic city scene, but of the two lovers standing on top of the world. Lanzel managed to create the story of the two lovers without the need for words, only sand. 

Lanzel remembers performing at a convention sponsored by Silpada, a jewelry company. This happens to be one of her most memorable performances in her career as a sand artist.

“It was there that I received my first standing ovation,” she said proudly.

The experience was unbelievable to Lanzel.

“I can’t begin to express how good that feels for an artist,” she said. “Because normally, we’re just working alone in our studio. We don’t get to have that kind of recognition, so for an artist like me, a visual artist, it’s very rare to be able to experience getting a standing ovation.”

Lanzel’s pieces and performances vary, often depending on her clients’ requests or suggestions.

“I try to make the pieces emotional,” she said. “Because that’s what really grabs people.”

Nature scenes are common in her pieces.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than nature,” she said. 

Because of the amount of time for her come up with full piece, Lanzel only take on a few custom pieces per month.

“It takes me about two or three weeks to create a custom animation,” she said. “I like to be able to give my full attention to each project.”

In addition, Lanzel also has her ambient performances, pieces she creates herself. Her ambient performances are a mix of the different pieces she performs in the videos found on her Youtube page. She combines these to create one big story, about 20 minutes long.

“It’s kind of like a film,” she said. 

Sometimes, the music is pre-recorded. Sometimes, it’s performed live by a band. But the music Lanzel chooses for her performance, as well as the images she animates, all convey a message.

“There’s a lot of back and forth between the music and the artwork,” she said. “They go together. I can’t imagine sand art without music. The music takes it to a more dramatic level.”

Lanzel currently resides in New York City with her husband Ronnie Magri, a drummer, DJ and music producer. She still travels around the country and around the world, performing and spreading her art to a wide variety of audiences. In addition to performing for top companies like Google, Geobeats, and Fusion Productions, she also gets invited to perform at festivals, weddings, and even dinner parties. Sand animation is an art form that can be integrated and performed anywhere. Lanzel calls it an “ephemeral art form.”

“It only happens in the moment,” she said. “I spend about two weeks of my time coming up with a new piece, only to be performed once, usually. So whoever is in that room, gets to see that effort. It’s a very special thing.”