MILFORD - A silver lining of last year's virtual sand sculpture contest was that anyone in the state - or beyond - could participate in the city's annual tradition. The event was such a success that the 44th annual competition - to be held July 18 - will be a hybrid model of in-person sculpting at Walnut Beach and virtual entries. "The virtual version went so well that we decided we should offer both versions of the contest this year," said Lori Lewis, previous marketing director for the Milford Arts Council. "Anyone from anywhere can enter and so we're shouting out to creative spirits from Cape Cod to California to Clearwater and even Croatia. Our vision is to see 'creativity everywhere,' so we want everyone to have a chance to build a sculpture on the home beach of choice." Richard Stephen, sand sculpture contest organizer, said most people who participate are from the Milford area, but some people have come from upstate, New York and Massachusetts. Stephen said he thinks most of the sculptures will be done at the beach even though the event has a hybrid model. "This is the first year we are doing this so it's hard to predict what will happen," he said. "I think there will be a few sent in virtually, but the fun of the whole thing really is going down there walking around and looking at all the sculptures." Before Stephen became a board member of the MAC and started running the event, he participated in the contest and even won some awards. Then he would bring his daughter to the contest, and she started participating in it as well. "The event is becoming more and more for families," said Stephen. "It used to be there was a lot more organizations that used to participate and groups of friends, and that still happens, but not as often." The sand sculpture contest is hosted by the Milford Arts Council and sponsored by Milford Bank and is the longest-standing tradition for the MAC. Last year, due to COVID, the MAC held the 43rd annual contest entirely virtually. Stephen said people who participated in the contest last year submitted photographs to the MAC to judge. "A lot of people went to the beach and did it on their own," he said. "I actually sculpted a rattlesnake on a board in my backyard with sand. So it was interesting, plus people who aren't just from Milford could enter more easily because they didn't have to drive down here." There are different award categories, including for individuals or groups of children up to age 9, which Stephen says is his favorite group to see. "They think more outside the box. They're not thinking so much standard fare like a shark or just an octopus," he said. "They generally tell more stories... One year there was a kid he was 6 or 7 years old and he did this sculpture that looked like an abstract painting. He started telling me the whole story about what it was. I could tell that he was an up-and-coming artist. He had the artist lingo down and ready." Other categories in the contest are individuals from 10-to-15 years old, individuals age 16-and-over, friends and groups and lastly families. "When the judges go out, I tell them the most important thing is creativity," he said. "You want them to be sort of technically well done, as best as possible, but if it's funny or if it says something even in terms of address an issue, whatever it is in terms of creativity and being original, that for me, is the most important thing." This year, Miss Connecticut 2021 Alexis Volpe will be a special guest judge at the contest, and Stephen said he's going to be a judge as well. "As many people who want to and can find space can participate because it's all dependent on the tide. The sand bars that develop sometimes are oddly shaped or are not that large so, it can get somewhat cramped sometimes," said Stephen. "But for the most part, there's always room for somebody, and it's oddly consistent in terms of how many people end up sculpting something." But since last year the MAC didn't hold the contest in person, Stephen said there might be more people this year sculpting at the beach. The MAC is also giving out a $100 online People's Choice award. To be eligible, participants need to follow the MAC on Facebook and Instagram, send a picture to email@example.com by 2 p.m. on July 18 and make a suggested $10 donation to the organization. In-person awards will be announced at 3 p.m. at Walnut Beach, and the online $100 People's Choice award will be announced on the website on Aug. 1.