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Enter Sandman

Jeffray N. Kessler - July 20th, 2009
Enter Sandman
Bellaire sculptor Ray Villafane
makes mark in Italy

By Jeffray N. Kessler 7/20/09

In June, the resort town of Jesolo, Italy hosted 18 of the world’s most
highly-respected sand sculptors to participate in their annual summer
sculpting event. Bellaire’s Ray Villifane was one of the invitees.
The annual summer show in this coastal city near Venice is an “important
tourist attraction for the community and a real big event,” Villafane
says. “The show is not a competition, but always has a theme.  We are
informed of the theme ahead of time, but don’t know what character we
will have until a final drawing just prior to work beginning. This year,
the theme was ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ and I was fortunate enough to draw the
main character of the story, Satan.” 
The event was made up of 20 sculptures. Just as barbarians had invaded
Jesolo in the fifth century, a new cadre of fierce marauders now posed in
its harbor under circus tents.  For visitors touring the outdoor, mystical
museum, the creations told the story of “Dante’s Inferno.”
Dante Alighieri’s epic poem describes an imaginary journey through the
afterlife which the author took on a sojourn to find God. His path led
him through dream-like experiences in hell, purgatory and finally

“The sculptors came from different countries, including Russia, Japan,
Italy, Holland, the former Czech Republic, and Portugal,” Villafane says.”
It was great to work with them, and get to know a brand-new circle of
“My biggest challenge was the scale of this work,” he adds. “I am used to
working with seven-inch action figures.  When I walked into the tent, I
had a sketch of what I planned to do, but was surprised to see before me a
16-foot-high, 350-ton pile of sand. I had the biggest pile, probably
because I had the main character. I didn’t realize it would be that big.” 
The size logistics became a workout for the Bellaire sculptor. “I would do
a little work, but to get a good look at it, I would have to climb all the
way down and back away.  I’d climb back up to make a change, and then do
the same thing over again.”   
The actual sculpting required engineering and architectural aptitudes as
well as artistic skills.
“First of all, this sand was specially-prepared by compressing it over and
over under the weight of heavy equipment.  It is very dense.  My tools
included a shovel, cement trowels and homemade tools consisting of bent
wire and metal banding,” Villafane says.
“You can never forget that you are basically working on a pyramid
structure and the weight is distributed on that shape.  Even though the
sand is more dense, collapses do happen, and when they do, you can’t just
pick up some more and pack into place like you were at our Lake Michigan
beach, because that spot will not be as structurally sound.  You just have
to adapt at that point and change your design.  For example, if a nose
collapses, I might change it to a cut-out skeleton nose.  I also learned
that strength could be incorporated with design.  Some of those swirls you
see are really there to make the area stronger and allow me to make a
strategic undercut.”

Ten days later, Satan appeared, gazing down and taunting visitors on the
Jesolo beach, guarded from the drying penetrations of the Mediterranean
sun under the big top.  
It was not happenstance that the Bellaire sculptor was invited to rise
from his basement studio and travel to northern Italy. Last November
Villafane was invited by the city fathers of Jesolo to convert a part of
their beach to an ornate nativity scene.  His work was so admired that he
was asked to return this summer for one of the world’s most anticipated
sand sculpture events on that same beach. 
Villafane was contacted by the owner of a major sand sculpting company
that organizes many shows around the world including the event in Jesolo.
Despite having worked with sand only that one time, he was flown over --
with all expenses paid -- for this year’s exposition.  He has since been
invited back to do the town’s nativity scene again this year.
“The producers of the show and the members of the city committee seemed
very pleased with the work,” Villafane says. “The show, which will be up
for about a month, took in over 10,000 visitors its first weekend. I, like
all the other artists, were paid to come here and paid for our work.”
Villafane’s creativity goes far beyond sand sculpting, however.
“You know, even though I am still new to sculpting sand, sculpting is
sculpting. I can see doing this a couple of times a year, but not doing it
as often as the rest of the artists who do this pretty much year-round.  I
have to get back to my contract work.”

That contract work means back to the basement studio where super heroes
and action figures are waiting for Villafane’s imaginative cuts, delving
into worlds of conflict and cosmic resolutions.  It is not unusual for him
to work through the night. “Yeah, I’m kind of like a vampire I guess,” he
Many of the Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman and Wolverine figures found in
stores got their design start in Villifane’s basement studio.
Even at a young age, growing up in New York City, Villafane always knew he
was going to do something artistic in his life. “My whole life I liked
art.  I always knew I’d be involved in it.”
True to his self-prophesied destiny, he now has the reputation of being a
master sculptor, crafting comic book superheroes for D.C. and Marvel
comics, and action figures for Warner Brothers, McFarlane Toys, The
Cartoon Network, Sideshow Collectibles and World of Warcrafts video
games.  “I’m just a big kid making toys,” he jokes.
From high-end collectibles of popular movies such as “Ghost Rider” to
action figures based on your favorite hero or villain, Villafane’s
custom-crafted statuettes can be found on toy shelves around the world.

His procedure involves sculpting a figure, creating a mold, and then
making a resin casting. “From Bellaire, I ship them out, and in about
eight months, they start showing up in toy stores,” he says.
In the early 1990s, after falling in love with the area while on a
vacation, the Villifane family moved to Northern Michigan.  Answering his
fondness for children, he became a teacher, and instructed in Bellaire for
13 years. 
It was his wife Tammi who saw something more in her husband’s abilities.
“She saw that I had a lot of untapped talent, and constantly encouraged me
to think bigger. She was the one that inspired me to do more with my art.
She is the real reason I made a career change.”
With that bolstering, he remembers in 2003 going out to New York to visit
a friend who had once worked for Disney. 
“I got the ideas and added inspiration to do more with my art from his
work as a freelance sculptor. For my first portfolio piece I decided to
sculpt Wolverine. I ended up posting pictures of it on a Marvel-licensed
company site, and within two days I got a call from the owner.  This was
supposed to be my first practice piece and instead it ended up being
produced and sold worldwide.  It was literally overnight that things
changed for me.  It was the first figure I had ever done.” 

Villifane’s path to international fame courses through a variety of media
and inspirations.    
Last fall, as has been his habit for many years, he turned his sculpting
tools on innocent pumpkins, transforming them into ghouls and characters
that appeared in Bellaire.  A large two-faced “Hellboy” gourd made an
appearance at the Short’s Brewery Halloween party, for example, and at the
local Democratic Party headquarters, a Barack Obama pumpkin was on
Also in the fall, his skills transformed into national fame when he won a
$10,000 first prize at a pumpkin carving contest with a particularly
horrifying and detailed creation.  That competition was sponsored by and
broadcast on the Food Network. 
This expanded exposure brought new light to Villafane’s autumnal
creations. There was at least one international eye watching, and
eventually the Jesolo connection was made. 
Today he is known world-wide for the figures that clash in magazines,
movies, in video games, and serve to satisfy toy collector appetites. His
website is a museum of creatures and human-like figures that sport
rippling muscles, amazing talents, memorable faces and attitude. That
website is and it offers a link to Ray’s MySpace page
as well.
His work has been displayed at the New York Art Director’s Club, Society
of Illustrators Museum of American Illustration, Spaces Gallery and the
Jordan River Arts Council.  He has had work published in the Annual of
American Illustration, How magazine, Reflex magazine, Problems and
Solutions and Upper and Lower Case Periodical.

“For a while, I tried to juggle both careers, but it just got too tough,”
Villafane says of teaching. “I still really like working with kids, and I
visit classrooms and do workshops.”
The Villafanes enjoyment of children is verified by the fact that they
have six of their own. They also recently hosted a foreign exchange
student who returned this year for a summer visit.
Tammi Villafane is used to her husband’s creative mind and schedule. “He
has actually been doing this for a quite a while,” she says. “In the past,
we have gotten calls from Letterman and the Today Show. As more people
find out about him, it’s very exciting.”   
How lucky that a man who loves to make toys also loves children. How
fitting that he still considers himself a kid. In Antrim County’s
backyard, the likes of Wolverine and his compadres are coaxed and sculpted
into new poses and attitudes, given life on a panoramic, superhero’s
stage.  In Jesolo, they have learned that Ray Villafane’s talents can span
from the divine to the damned in striking, sandy detail.  Check out the
website and don’t be ashamed to find yourself leaving a night light on
this evening when you go to bed.    

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