Artistry in motion

Contest: Winning is secondary in the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which shows off entrants' skill in costumes, tinkering and decoration.

April 29, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

In the third annual Kinetic Sculpture Race that wobbled its way through downtown Baltimore yesterday, not winning was everything. Good costumes mattered. Tinkering genius counted. But finishing first? Oh, the horror.

The rules - and the word is used loosely in this oddball competition among pedal-powered contraptions decorated with everything from blow-up dolls to totem masks - rewarded whoever finished in the middle of the pack.

So it shouldn't have mattered that Team Fifi, four women piloting a 14-foot-tall pink tulle poodle, zipped effortlessly through South Baltimore as more modest entries struggled to stay upright. There should have been no smirks when gusty winds made the frothy pooch tough to steer in the water leg of the race; no envious sideways glances at the matching cat's-eye sunglasses of Fifi's handlers.

Still, competitive spirit dies hard. Call it a bad case of poodle envy.

"I tell the kids, don't worry about them," Donald Wiegman, a science teacher at Fairmount-Harford High School in Baltimore, said with a nod toward Fifi - the official entry of the American Visionary Art Museum, which also organized the race.

"They get paid to do this," said Wiegman, who was overseeing two students piloting "Stingray," a humble entry with a tarp covering two mountain bikes welded together. "These kids have to go to class all day."

Or to a job at Amtrak, in the case of Jim Mitchell, one of the mop-haired, bearded "nurses" who helped build the craft christened "thethingitself" and helped pedal it yesterday; or at the Social Security Administration, in the case of Jeff Bartolomeo, who took home the coveted "Mediocre Award" in last year's race and who was out in his garage beginning in February to start designing this year's entry.

Or even at the Visionary Art Museum, in the case of Mark Ward, the museum's deputy director, who helped build and steer "Beach Rescue," a craft that resembled a tidal wave and sported an inflatable doll riding atop a Styrofoam surfboard.

"Even if I wasn't associated with it, I'd still want to be in the race," Ward said. "There are many parts in life that make it all more bearable. This is one of them."

The race, dreamed up in 1969 by a Californian named Hobart Brown, is a blend of artistic outlet and engineering feat. This weekend, it also provided jaw-dropping spectacle to the crowds visiting Baltimore's Waterfront Festival at the Inner Harbor, which continues today with a fish fry cook-off and beach volleyball.

Brown, 67, decked out in train engineer's overalls, a black tuxedo coat and top hat, was on hand to help judge yesterday's event. He came up with the idea for the first kinetic sculpture race after transforming his son's tricycle into a 7-foot-tall creation that celebrated the whimsy and mad genius that have marked basement tinkerers for generations.

"It really got out of hand," Brown said. "I went to bed thinking it was the most beautiful thing, and I woke up and was embarrassed. I wanted to hide it."

The tricycle is on display at Brown's museum of human-powered sculpture in Ferndale, Calif. Brown now receives a hero's welcome from racers, who took about five hours yesterday to complete the 13-mile course that wound through Federal Hill, Canton and the Inner Harbor.

What starts out as part costume party, part Shriners-style parade, turns into an endurance contest as vehicles cobbled together from bicycle tires, steering gears and flotation devices prove their worth in a strange triathlon of asphalt, mud and water.

"It's really just about getting through it," said Ed Istwan of Baltimore, who served as an art judge yesterday, doling out scores in categories such as costumes, color, theatrics and crowd appeal.

"Getting through it as a team. And - oh my god - it's so much fun."

Each of the 15 entries finished yesterday's race, some in better condition than others. Jim Paulson's Elvis-styled entry from Towson University called "Rock and Roll" ended up in the middle spot, winning the "Mediocre Award" and an invitation to the International Finals in Northern California - a race that covers 39 miles from Ferndale to Arcata, three times the distance of yesterday's competition.

Fifi, for the record, finished last. Istwan called the finish-line appearance Fifi's "grand finale." Theadora Brack, a member of Team Fifi and public relations director for the Visionary Art museum, put it differently:

"She's a polite poodle," Brack said. "She let everybody else pass."

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