During the late 1990s, Kirk Rademaker felt like his life was falling apart. He was a project manager for Mueller Nicholls, a high-end cabinet and construction company in West Oakland, California. The stresses of his job, which involved coordinating between the architects, contractors and the clients, were proving too much for him. “You’re like an hourglass, and all the information goes through your head,” he remembers. “Everybody’s looking at you for answers.” On top of that, he was going through a divorce, which just made him less focused at work. “I was spending $90 an hour to see a therapist,” he says. “And all he told me was that I had textbook depression.”
Rademaker began taking regular trips to nearby Stinson Beach, just to gaze at the ocean and build sand castles. “It was very healing and therapeutic,” he says. “I didn’t have to think about all the responsibilities that felt like they were crashing down on me. I was just being creative.” He soon discovered that he had a talent for it—he learned how to create extravagant sand sculptures that could tower as high as 10 feet—and began competing in sandcastle competitions across the Bay Area. His new hobby didn’t always sit well with his employers. “When a contractor calls up and wants to talk to me because there’s a problem on the job,” Rademaker says, “they don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, he’s off building sand castles.’ It didn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
The turning point came in 2000, when his girlfriend at the time, another sand sculptor with the professional name “Sandy Feet,” called and invited him to a sandcastle competition in Italy. “I was juggling four projects at Mueller Nicholls and people were already upset with me for taking too much time off,” he says. “So I told her no, I couldn’t join her. I hung up the phone and looked out the windows in my office, at the oil-stained asphalt streets of Oakland. And I thought, my god, what did I just do?” It was that moment, he says, when he had an epiphany. He had to quit his job and devote himself full-time to building sandcastles.
The career change didn’t happen overnight. It took almost a decade before Rademaker, now 61, started earning an income comparable to his tenure as a project manager. Today, he lives in Santa Cruz and runs Sand Guys International, a professional sand sculpture company he co-founded in 2009 with Rusty Croft. His sand art doesn’t come cheap. Typical costs are “$100 an hour or $1000 a day,” he says. “It really depends on who the client is.” His clients, hard-won after years of proving himself on the sandcastle circuit, include Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, who’ve hired him for everything from corporate theme parties to promotional events. He travels regularly across the globe, creating sand sculptures in places like Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Thailand, and New Zealand. He and Croft recently signed an endorsement deal with Ocean Potion sunscreen. “We’re going on the road for them,” he says. “I’m pretty sure we’re the first sand carvers to ever get a product endorsement.”
Though he’s busier than ever, Rademaker insists that stress is now a distant memory for him. He loves everything about his job, including the disposability of his creations. “People ask me all the time, don’t you want to do something permanent?” Rademaker bursts into laughter. “Now why would I want to do that?”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek website.)