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Hobert Brown fights to preserve his zany race
by LINDA MITCHELL
ARTIST HOBART BROWN [photo
at right] BECAME THE "GLORIOUS
FOUNDER" of the Kinetic Sculpture Race 35 years ago when
he raced six of his friends one block down the town's Main Street,
riding a converted tricycle, a contraption he called "The
below left shows the Pentacycle in the Kinetic Sculpture Museum.] The race has since grown from that one-block dash
to an Arcata-to-Ferndale trek across 38 miles of land, water,
sand and mud. And the sculptures have become increasingly elaborate
and wacky. Through it all, Hobart has remained at the helm. That
is, until recently.
Last year Hobart sold his glorious
race to a nonprofit group called Humboldt Kinetic Association.
I met with him the other day in his studio/living room, on the
second floor of the 1877 Victorian that Viola McBride sold him
40 years ago, to talk about the transition.
Hobart, whose crippling rheumatoid
arthritis forced him to give up Kinetic competition 11 years
ago, insisted he's still very much "in the wings,"
valiantly fighting to preserve the integrity of the race. In
fact, according to Hobart, his biggest struggle these days is
trying to keep things the same. "You don't change the smile
on the Mona Lisa," he said.
He becomes especially distressed
when anyone suggests making the race easier. For example, there's
recently been talk of changing the bay crossing so the racers
would be going with the tide instead of against it. "Can
you believe it?" he asked me. "We've always gone against
the tide! Where's the challenge in going with it?"
And challenge is the name of
the game, as far as Hobart is concerned. He said there are race
elements designed strictly "for the racer" that need
to be preserved, elements like the Slimy Slope. "There's
always talk of closing or moving that part of the course, but
the racers need it," he said.
Now, I always figured the purpose
of the Slimy Slope was to let the racers play in the mud for
a while, but Hobart said it's one of the most difficult parts
of the course. Apparently it gives racers the opportunity to
experience those "kinetic moments," when racer and
machine become one entity, pitted against nature.
Hobart recalled a personal "kinetic
moment" in 1982, when he decided to launch his People Powered
Bus into the bay (against the tide) despite the 60-mph winds
blowing that Memorial Day weekend. The harrowing event was captured
on film by CBS's Good Morning America and was included
in It'll Have Blinking Eyes and A Moving Mouth,"
the wonderful, award-winning documentary by New York filmmakers
Jeb Bergh and Steve Fox. "Waves were crashing over the machine,"
Hobart recalled, still looking like a little boy at age 69. "My
team was a little worried, but I wasn't. I knew the Coast Guard
would save us if the bus sank."
was the first year June Moxon participated in the race, as part
of Hobart's team. "We were facing death out there!"
June told him when the bus and exhausted team members arrived
safely on the south spit. He asked if she thought the course
should be changed. "Don't you dare!" she responded
Twenty-one years later, June
is still racing, in her very own quirky, beautiful, yet carefully
engineered kinetic sculptures, made out of chicken wire, papier-maché
and a sprinkling of fairy dust. She agreed the course needs to
remain challenging. "We don't want it to be a bike race.
It's the triathlon of the art world," June said, dead serious,
looking taller than her 5 feet 2 inches.
While the race evolved considerably
over the years, the Glorious Founder insisted the changes were
merely fine-tuning Mona Lisa's smile. "If you start picking
at any work of art, you risk destroying it."
That said, Hobart still has
a few ideas for improving the race, including a "flying
element," which, to be honest, I didn't quite understand,
even though he drew a diagram on a paper napkin for me. He also
acknowledged he's relieved not to be handling administration
of the Race, and the financial burden that goes with it. "I'm
an artist, so I wasn't very good at that part of it," he
In fact, Hobart said he still
owes $45,000 on the Victorian he bought from Viola for $10,000,
because of a string of mortgages he took out over the years to
keep the race going. Hobart's Gallery is on the bottom floor
of the building, downstairs from the studio he's worked in for
the past 40 years. With its redwood walls and toys everywhere,
it looks something like a boy's tree-house in Never-Neverland.
Bob Iorg, a friend of Hobart's,
dropped by while I was there and offered to show me the "secret
rooms" above the second floor. Hobart led the way to a steep
spiral staircase, with steps clearly too vertical and narrow
for a grown-up to climb.
"I'll take you up,"
Bob said. Uh. I looked at Hobart, and knew he wished his disability
didn't prevent him from taking the lead. Instead I followed Bob
(who's older than I am) up the stairs. There's just something
about Hobart that brings out the kid in everyone.
After safely exploring the hidden
rooms (since they're secret all I can tell you is walking on
a plank was involved) I told Hobart how much I liked his studio
and the gallery downstairs, adding they're both "very Humboldt
"You couldn't pay me a
nicer compliment," he said, eyes misty. "I'm so emotional
these days," he added. I asked if it was hard for him to
sell his race.
"It was harder last year.
But I learned about letting go when I sold my first sculpture,
a long time ago. That's what art teaches you," he said.
"It's the same with your kids," (he has four), "you
just do the best you can and send them on out into the world."
Hobart also assured me he has
plenty of ideas to keep him occupied, including a (real) flying
saucer, powered by something called "gyroscopic procession,"
and a scientific method of proving the existence of past lives.
Oh, and there's "Wheeled Angels," a comic book he's
working on (with an Australian publisher) about a little boy
in a wheelchair who's a superhero, a project I'd say is right
up Hobart's alley.
He also plans to remain involved
in the Kinetic Sculpture Race, in the wings, making sure the
racers still get to go against the tide.
Arcata To Ferndale
Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race
will be rolling through Humboldt
County with its annual display of creative craziness, this Memorial
Day weekend, May 24, 25 & 26. Now in its second year, the
not-for-profit Humboldt Kinetic Association will, once again,
be running the show with an eye on improving spectator accessibility,
while maintaining the traditions of this grand event.
DAY 1 - SATURDAY, MAY 24
Expect the traditional
fun of the brake test on the Arcata Plaza (11 a.m.), the noon
start, and all the thrills and spills of "Dead Man's Drop"
(about 1:00) on Saturday. Remember, the plaza gets very busy,
so show up early for the best views. And don't forget the sunscreen
and mosquito repellant for the walk out to the drop.
DAY 2 - SUNDAY, MAY 25
Sunday will see the racers
spending more time in the bay this year! After entering the bay
under the Samoa Bridge (11:00,) these water-bound wonders will
be peddling and paddling close to 2 miles before exiting the
water at the Schneider dock (south gate, 990 W. Waterfront Drive).
Spectators who are not watching the vehicles launch will want
to keep an eye on the "F" street area, where
we hope to throw a few new curves at the racers.
DAY 3 - MONDAY, MAY 26
Also new this year will
be the treacherous "Captain Morgan's Slew" on Monday.
After years of dastardly deeds and treacherous tricks on Slimy
Slope, a new route has been chosen. But will this narrow, winding
waterway turn out to be safe, or a pirate's trap? Expect the
racers (those who survive) to begin making their way into Ferndale
at about 1:00.
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