Dennis Massoud remembers the day his career as a world-champion sand artist really began. The long-time Noosa local owned a photographic company with his brother-in-law and was working seven days a week, and sometimes 12 hours a day.
“I was running out of my house in Noosa one day with camera bags under each arm,” he says.
“My eldest son Luke was three or four at the time. He was sitting in the lounge watching Sesame Street and as I ran past he held his hand up and said, ‘bye Dad’.
“He looked really sad. I was sitting in the car choking back tears, thinking I could have a really good photographic business but not see my family.
“I went back upstairs and said to him, ‘From now on when I come home from a Friday to a Sunday morning, it’s our time.
“Just you and me. It’s going to be a special time.’
“On that very first day I asked him, ‘it’s your day, what do you want to do?’ He said he wanted to go to Tea Tree Bay in Noosa National Park and build things in the sand.”
Luke never tired of sand sculpting with his dad, and would instruct him to make lions, castles and mermaids. People began to gather around and throw money in the water bucket.
“He was excited and told me I didn’t have to be a photographer anymore. I thought it was a joke, but eventually I realised I could make money from busking.”
Mr Massoud, whose family settled in Noosa in 1900, spent his childhood collecting coloured sand from Noosa North Shore to put in bottles and sell in tourist shops.
While his father and uncle took people on coloured sand tours, Mr Massoud would carve faces into the sand dunes.
“That’s when I unconsciously got into sand sculpting – when I was seven,” he says.
But it was Luke’s prompting years later that changed the course of Mr Massoud’s life.
He has now been a full-time professional sand sculptor for 28 years and has travelled the world.
He won the world championships in Denmark in 2003 and has taken on incredible projects.
The most prestigious was when a sheikh in Abu Dhabi paid him $US2000 (more than $2500) a day to sculpt Arabian forts and do workshops with children.
In September last year he was commissioned to build a sand hotel complete with a five-star luxury bedroom, an eight-bed hostel-style bunk room, bars, sun decks, lounges and a DJ platform on the Gold Coast.
And it wasn’t just for show – 30 people stayed in it over a three-day period.
Known as the Sandman, Mr Massoud’s achievements are all the more incredible when you learn about his disabilities.
“Ever since I’ve been sand sculpting I’ve been vision impaired,” he says.
“My vision was affected when I was 15 – one eye from an injury and another eye from an acid burn. I’m totally blind in my right eye and have partial vision in my left.
“One job I really enjoyed was the Louis Braille’s 200-year celebration,” he says.
“I worked with a lady to devise a way where people who are totally blind could participate in creating a sand sculpture.
“We wanted to create massive braille dots on the beach that could be seen from the air and photographed from a helicopter.
“They were going to read ‘braille rocks’. I got together with a guy who does acrylic moulds and had holes cut into them where vision impaired people could place the sand in and compact it and feel what they created.”
Mr Massoud isn’t just a man of outstanding artistic talent, he’s also a man of great heart.
He has been an environmental activist for most of his life and has spent years campaigning against inappropriate development in Noosa.
“There were 20-storey buildings proposed for both sides of Hastings Street that we objected to,” he says.
“They wanted an Imax theatre, a theme park, tour booking office and restaurant to seat 164 people and it was approved by the Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] government.
“I worked for 10 years and collected 1.5 million signatures. We formed a team called the Noosa National Park Team and I was the team leader.
“We always have to be ever vigilant,” he says. “Things are still changing, places are still being eroded.
“It’s the nibbling effect people have to be aware of. Years ago it was obvious when someone would go and clear 150 hectares of melaleuca swamp – that’s what happened at Noosa Waters.
“Now they have a different approach. They’ll clear a little bit, develop a little bit, clear a little bit. It’s the boiled frog syndrome.”
While Mr Massoud says he’s won some and lost some in his environmental battles to keep Noosa’s natural environment pristine, sand sculpting has taught him to let go of what he can’t control.
“Part of the intrigue for me is this is an ephemeral art. It’s not permanent.
“For me as an environmental activist, seeing all the changes in Noosa that really disturbed me emotionally and mentally, sand sculpture has helped me let go of these things I can’t change.
“With sand sculpting, you just walk away. If everybody can realise they’ve done their best and let things go that are really annoying them or upsetting them, they’ll really find inner joy and happiness.”