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The following article appeared in the Idaho State Journal, July 6, 1973.


Seeing the World in Grains of Sand

by Glenn Ray Downing

In a wooded ravine among the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, one mile south of McGregor, Iowa, a stratus of St. Peter Sandstone is exposed.

It is almost pure silica, but there are small amounts of iron oxide that have been deposited which has produced more than forty delicate shades of color in bands and patches, giving the rock a beautiful variegated appearance. The colors range from pale pink to dark red, green, blue, brown, terra cotta, and white to black through intermediate grays. The place as long been known to visitors and those living in the McGregor vicinity as Pictured Rocks. Being a native Iowan, and living not far from McGregor, I had the opportunity to hike the Pictured Rocks region many times and to see these colored sands.

It was from this sandstone of the Pictured Rocks area with all its chromatic color range that a man by the name of Andrew Clemens obtained the materials for what was probably the most unusual work in sand the world as ever known -- his exquisitely fashioned sand bottles.

Andrew Clemens was born in Dubuque, Iowa on January 29, 1857. Left deaf and almost mute after an attack of "brain fever" at the age of five, Clemens was sent to the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf at Council Bluffs and studied there for a number of years. When he went home to stay, Andrew set himself to his work of perfecting a sand bottle technique, and eventually over the years executed exquisite designs or pictures, resembling fine paintings, entirely from dry, loose sand.

The sand was poured into the bottles with a special tiny homemade scoop holding one-fourth of a teaspoonful of sand. This scoop was fastened to a slender hickory wand nine and one-quarter inches long. With one hand he controlled the colored sands inside the bottle with a curved tool; with the other hand he used a straight tool to measure the perspective on the outside of the bottle. He used four packers to press the grains of sand down tightly as he worked toward the mouth of the bottle. Since he used round-top bottles with the opening and stopper at the bottom, he had to do all of his intricate work upside down. The pictures or designs were held together in the bottle only by the pressure or the sand's own weight and the stopper of the bottle. No dyes, glue, or paste was used. A broken bottle meant instant destruction of the designs.

Clemens' reputation grew and visitors from England and Germany came to watch him at work, and bought bottles to take home. Orders commenced to arrive from Europe. His prices at that time were incredibly low, only a fraction of the value placed on his work today. A large bottle containing a miniature of a Mississippi River steamboat, bouquets, and bearing the owner's name, was priced at six or eight dollars. Clemens wrote to his brother in January, 1889: "My price for a pint bottle with a locomotive and 3 cars is $5.00." Yet some of these bottles took a year to complete.

Recognition came to Clemens, but not commensurate with his talent. "McGregor has an artist nowhere equaled in this world in his line of artistic work" wrote the editor of the North Iowa Times on July 5, 1888. Clemens died in 1894.

Clemens probably produced hundreds of his exquisite sand bottles during his lifetime. Only a few are known to exist today. The one pictured here is in the collection of the Iowa State Department of History and Archives in Des Moines. The photograph was loaned through the courtesy of Miss Vicki Jones, circulation manager of the "Annals of Iowa", a historical quarterly at the Historical Building, Des Moines.

Having tramped the Pictured Rocks area where Andrew Clemens collected his colored sands, and having stood in awe in front of one of his exquisitely designed bottles, I have a profound appreciation for the great artistic work of this unusual man. His whole world was centered in grains of sand, one of the commonest of natural materials around us.


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