Cover photo caption
story & photos by ELLIN BELTZ
HUMBOLDT COUNTY IS A PLACE OF WONDERFUL, OFTEN MAGICAL OPPORTUNITY -- true thaumaturgy flows between its striking natural landscape and its artistic inhabitants. The area's most unique artistic spectacle, the Grand Championship to Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race, began quite humbly in Ferndale in 1969 as a challenge match between some local artists. Thirty-five years later, it is a local tradition and, thanks to the evangelic fervor of Ferndale artist Hobart Brown, the race's self-proclaimed "Glorious Founder," it is also a growing passion elsewhere in the world.
Besides the Grand Championship there are annual kinetic sculpture races in Ventura; Corvallis, Ore.; Port Townsend, Wash.; Baltimore; even as far afield as Perth, Australia.
It seems almost everyone in Humboldt County knows Hobart; the man is a famous -- or infamous -- local celebrity. Most tell me to only believe half his stories, and the sheer number who swear they were involved in his most outrageous exploits -- pig hunting with homemade spears in the woods outside Petrolia, Halloween parties that may or may not have inspired satanic cults -- suggests some sort of mass hysteria. Then again, this is a man with a knack for making people do bizarre things -- at the least, propel human-powered sculptures 35 miles across pavement, mud, sand and water every Memorial Day.
Hobart doesn't race anymore -- he can't. At age 70, he has a very bad case of rheumatoid arthritis; his bones are practically eaten away to cartilage, and each step he takes now shows in his face. The heat of Australian summers, which, of course, correspond with our winters, helps his condition. For the past nine years he has spent the winter there, and regularly attends the Perth Kinetic Sculpture Race, sponsored by the Princess Margaret Hospital and local Rotary clubs since 1998.
Unfortunately, this year even the antipodean heat didn't seem to help and Hobart returned home from Down Under upset because he felt sure he couldn't travel to Baltimore for the annual race there May 1. As a friend, I offered to go with him to make the journey easier; he accepted, and about as quick as you can utter the kinetic battle cry, "for the glory," I had packed my race outfit (bright red dress covered with yellow and orange triangles), a notebook and my camera. Four days later we were on our way to Baltimore.
Taking off from Humboldt we flew over the whole Grand Championship course -- Arcata Plaza, Dead Man's Drop, Crab Park and the finish line in Ferndale. Then we were over the lands beyond Humboldt; 2,700 miles later we arrived after dark in Baltimore to be whisked away to our digs for the week, the lovely town home of "Kinetic Seer" Lane Burk.
The next day we met Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) and founder of Baltimore's Almost Famous Annual East Coast Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race.
[photo at right: Rebecca Hoffberger with Hobart Brown]
She's one of those people whose accomplishments make you feel like a slacker. She was the first American to apprentice to noted mime Marcel Marceau, and has volunteered on medical projects delivering babies in poverty-stricken parts of Central America. Most recently, her vision and energy have been devoted to her museum, a five-story remodeled brick building right on the city's harbor that displays work by people not trained as artists; and to the race, which the museum has sponsored since 1999.
To top it off, Hoffberger is a stunningly beautiful older woman, sixtyish, tall, blonde going gray, with a graceful, erect figure and the lithe movements of a cat. She really belongs in Humboldt, I thought, when I met this warm and friendly woman -- although no doubt Baltimore needs more laid-back intelligent artists to balance its frantic yuppie rat racers.
Right after lunch we watched the unloading of Cirque du Sore Legs, an engine and two-car sculpture with six pedal positions modeled on a circus train. A film crew from the Discovery Channel covered the action, reminding us that this East Coast Kinetic Madness is taken seriously.
Hobart was guest of honor at a racers' meeting that night at the museum. His duties included bestowing the official title, Kinetic Seer, along with the symbolic pendant, on Theresa Segreti, who works for the museum and has taken part in the Baltimore race multiple times. The seer award is given to those whom Hobart has selected because of their understanding of the kinetic spirit and their determination to keep the races running and start new ones. The museum's "Mother Teresa," as she's called, is the person to be honored with the title. I am proud to say that I received the 13th Seer Award in 2002 for my work in keeping the Kinetic Sculpture Museum in Ferndale up and running.
After that the entertainment moved to a screening of a new movie by Christian Hellmers of Cockeysville, Md., titled Hobart and the Race of the Kinetinauts," which is what the Baltimore racers call themselves. The film intercut interviews with Hobart discussing kinetic history and philosophy with clips of the Baltimore race.
The next morning, unloading and preparations continued on The Rat, Fifi, Bumpo and the other machines that were clustered in the museum's Kinetic Annex. They have a whole building dedicated to things kinetic, and are constructing an additional structure that will house a permanent kinetic museum and workshops for racers. Think of it as Arcata's Kinetic Lab plus the Ferndale Kinetic Museum rolled into one, but five times bigger than both.
I left with independent filmmaker Lisa Lewenz, best known for the 1998 film A Letter Without Words, which grew out of her Jewish grandmother's successful effort to visually -- and surreptitiously -- document life under the Nazis. Over the course of a few hours, Lewenz and I went on a jaunt into several states -- you can do that back East -- where we saw machines in various stages of readiness for the race: some finished, some still under construction. Finally, we ended our day at a farm near Pennsylvania where a most amazing kinetic family had clustered for their very own pre-race victory dinner.
I just know I'm going to get some of these relationships all mixed up, but the family is composed of two sets of twins, one male and one female, and their non-twin siblings. They would all be on a sculpture titled Bedlam as pilots and crew. The family is already covered in glory having won multiple Mediocre Awards, Aces and Pilot Wings and sported their very own "Leaping Beaver Race Team" logo gear and patches. Besides a sly grin, the only explanation they'd give for their logo is that their sculptures have represented the Punxsutawney groundhog and other famous smaller furry mammals.
Talking with the Leaping Beavers, I realized some of the incredible parallels in these two races. Both have teams of people who come back year after year working on their designs and determination. Awards are given and taken very seriously. Both reserve as their highest honor the Ace Award for piloting a sculpture perfectly and without assistance for the whole course.
It became clear that kinetic traditions that we take for granted in Humboldt have been adopted, some imparted by Hobart, others learned by watching old videos of the Grand Championship. It was curious. These kinetinauts imitate the Grand Championshyip in many ways, in other ways they are freer, more artistic and less self-aware.
The Leaping Beavers were fascinated by similarities and differences between their race, the Australian race and ours. We eventually realized it was late, and the gathering broke up amid spontaneous cheers of "for the glory!"
Before returning to our quarters, Lewenz and I toured the race course, cruising Baltimore's darkened streets and Inner Harbor into the wee hours, which meant I ended up getting just two hours of sleep before waking for the 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time brake and safety check. (It was 5 a.m. back home in Ferndale.)
Hobart and I arrived at the museum to find a scene of frenetic activity, with sculptures being pushed, costumes being tweaked, bubbles flying, music blaring, kazoos tuning up and various other wild and wacky happenings spreading from the museum to the adjoining park.
The opening ceremonies included an all-kazoo rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," one that I found particularly moving knowing it was composed by Francis Scott Key right there in Baltimore. Next came the Blessing of the Feet by "the Mad Monk," resplendent in a brown robe and sunglasses. Racers lay on their backs with their feet in the air for the blessing, after which they climbed the hill at the edge of the park and waited to begin their LeMans style start. Then, with the sound of a starting bell, they were off!
Hobart climbed into his official golf cart, piloted by Chief Judge Ed and accompanied by Seer Lane and Judge Kim. [photo at left] I followed in a media golf cart shared with a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, a full crew from the Discovery Channel, Lewenz the filmmaker and our driver, the museum's director of development, Marcia Mjoseth Semmes.
Kinetic racing has its own rules. Art, engineering and speed are judged at the local Grand Championship. Baltimore has similar awards, including "the Mediocre Award" for its middle of the pack winner, but by necessity, some of their rules are different, reflecting the more urban nature of their race.
As in any Kinetic Race, several machines broke down right away, others died in water hazards and on the city streets. One had to be trucked to the first water hazard; I wondered how many hours penalty that might be; it wasn't quite a "tow," after all.
Every time we came to a corner, we encountered kinetic volunteers holding up signs that looked like chickens telling racers which way to go -- and at the same time holding out their hands for bribes. Bribes, for kinetic virgins, are offered by racers not only to volunteers but also to members of the crowd and even race officials in an effort to influence balloting for the various awards, including "People's Choice." In kinetic sculpture racing, as Hobart likes to say, cheating is a privilege, not a right.
There was also a police escort, three or four Baltimore cops on three-wheeled motorcycles, who kept whipping along ahead of the racers, then stopping and blocking traffic for the race.
The sculptures and golf carts careened through Baltimore neighborhoods full of brick townhouses, with their famed marble steps, and past brick churches. We passed schools with teams in the race where large crowds of cheering students and parents waived their teams onward.
Perhaps the most specifically beautiful contraption in the race was The Two-Headed Dragon, which boasted an airbrushed, almost graffiti-style paint job on top of thin foam, and a sculpting job that was meticulous right down to the teeth. It was the work of students at a local high school that had recently undergone a restructuring which separated the school into arts and academics. The students explained that the two heads on their sculpture represented how they felt about the change.
A watery challenge
After innumerable turns and twists, we arrived at Canton Harbor for the first water hazard of the day. Entering the water via a sloping ramp, some sculptures proved themselves worthy, but many would have benefited from a centerboard or keel, some sort of propulsion system and, perhaps most importantly, some testing before race day.
A machine built at the Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, Pa., titled La Kafkaracha, floated beautifully. Unfortunately its best direction was sideways and the crowd roared as the two pilots frantically pushed and paddled to avoid being dragged away from shore.
From a distance it was hard to differentiate between their arms, and the sculpture's cockroach legs, except for the fact that the human arms were a blur of activity. Their sculpture represented the half-human, half-cockroach protagonist in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. At the point they realized they were headed directly for the rocks and a piling, they may have realized the true meaning in Kafka's existential statement, "From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached." They reached it, collided with it, pushed off and managed to get around the rest of the loop hugging the pier the whole way.
The crowd at the Canton was the largest of the day -- from 300 to 500 people. Previous years have shown this water loop to be the place with the greatest thrills and spills. Volunteers from the museum passed out smiles on Popsicle sticks to spectators who barely needed to be reminded to smile. The sight of all these grownups running around in strange costumes, escorting phenomenal sculptures, was enough to make even the hardened Baltimore police escort start to crack a grin.
The Golden Flipper Award was earned by Louis the Dog. The pilots on this craft had added a piece of gear this year and hadn't allowed for the extra weight. So first one end went down, then a pilot leapt to the other side and so on. The dance continued for only a few seconds, but seemed an eternity. Lewenz, the filmmaker, was in agony because Louis' pilots were wearing hundreds of dollars of microphones and other gadgetry -- fortunately, the hardware, not to mention the pilots, survived.
Excited by the dog dance, the crowd began to spontaneously chant "I think I can, I think I can," as Cirque du Sore Legs, the circus train contraption, entered the water only to have the wind take the thing away. The Baltimore Police decided it was too far away from the pier and took it in tow, an hour penalty. The front of the circus train, carrying the engineer and the ringmaster, happily chugged along after the police boat, but then the back end, with twice as many cars and four people, broke free. It was towed back by two volunteers in a kayak. For all of that, Cirque du Sore Legs won the Golden Dinosaur award.
As the sculptures exited the water, officials held them until all were out. This gave the media a chance to do interviews and volunteers an opportunity to clean up bags and bags of debris -- typical urban pollution -- which had washed ashore.
After being released from the Canton waterfront, the sculptures raced uphill to Patterson Park, where a sand trap and a mud trap had been built by museum volunteers in imitation of our race. Most sculptures did fine in the sand, but the mud was a real challenge. The mud consumed all but a few, leaving the pit crews brown and slimy.
The Duck was pushed through by its pit crew, several of whom took the opportunity to have a mud fight in the pit. After all the sculptures exited the mud, the racers were delayed again as the police stopped traffic on the side streets, clearing the way for a breathtaking downhill ride back into downtown Baltimore. The angle of the streets and the tall buildings rising into view reminded me once again that we were not in Humboldt.
I'd heard the last stop before the celebratory dinner was an obstacle course, and now I found out why. A waterfront beautification project was underway and the course went right through the "under construction" zone. Then the racers all went in and out of the water one more time and headed back to the museum for the awards ceremony.
Chief Judge Ed also served as master of ceremonies, and after a few words by both founders, Hobart and Rebecca, the awards were given, most notably two Aces: one to Jimbo Hansen from Woodstock, N.Y., for Beaver Bike II; the other to the pilot of Kinetic Airways, Bob Buerger from Crystal Lake, Ill. Both of these were simple, stripped down, one-man machines designed for functionality.
Some things I liked best about the race didn't have awards. Like the local "Dumpster Diver" organization getting together some of the most interesting bribes. They collected bags and toys, books and trinkets to put in them. Then a volunteer on a bicycle rode around tossing out the bags to judges and spectators. My bag was just perfect for me. It had a quote from a famous mountaineer that read, "You can never conquer the mountain, you can only conquer yourself."
Each of the pilots and crew that day conquered themselves. And they learned things about how they feel and perform when they're under pressure. And, perhaps most importantly, they learned to take it easy and laugh at life's misfortunes.
The magic is in the fun
Kinetic sculpture racing is not just about the work of making and racing a creative machine through all sorts of torturous conditions. What makes kinetic sculpture racing magical is that adults have fun. What made the Baltimore race magical was for a very brief time, the all-too-real world of life in the frantic East Coast rat race slowed down. For part of one day, Baltimore was infected by a bit of Humboldt County's pervasive thaumaturgy -- smiles blossomed, strangers held conversations. Public happiness is a rare thing East of the Sierras -- believe me, I know; I'm a native of New York City. So it was a wonderful thing to see. All too soon, it was back to the real world of highways, airports and airplanes. We were in our last plane, on the way to Humboldt, when our flight attendant told the front half of the plane that she loves flying in and out of Arcata because "everyone is always smiling."
And I knew I was home in Humboldt where we are, as Hobart says, "adults having fun so children want to get older."
If you can see Baltimore's race someday, do. It's worth it. Their machines are artier, somehow brighter, pouffier, less engineered and more prone to breakdowns, which are, of course, half the fun of racing. And if you're anywhere near Humboldt County on Memorial Day, don't miss the race that started it all. Bring your kinetic smile. You'll need it.
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