A moving show of art

Event: Creative foot-powered assemblages take the field in the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race, sponsored by the American Visionary Arts Museum.

April 14, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

The rules for competing in the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race that snaked its way through downtown Baltimore yesterday were simple, if a tad offbeat: Participants must propel their human-powered vehicles over a 15-mile course composed of city streets, water loops, mud, sand and ice.

Cheating - done well - was acceptable.

"Rosie Ruiz is our hero," explained Hobart Brown, a Ferndale, Calif., sculptor who launched the first kinetic sculpture race 34 years ago in his hometown. Initially, "she got away" with it, he said, referring to the runner who took public transportation to win the Boston Marathon in 1980.

And bribes to influence the judges charged with awarding trophies for the artistic and engineering skills of the 21 teams in the race were wholeheartedly appreciated.

The pilots of Team Fifi, the American Visionary Art Museum's 14-foot-tall pink tulle poodle, distributed poodle-shaped cookies and pink popcorn balls. The Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, a team that for the past four years has fashioned its entry from cast-off items that artists like to refer to as "found objects," gave anyone and everyone bags of play money, trinkets and toys recovered from trash bins at thrift stores.

The Dragonfly Divas from Towson University, with their lavender fiberglass-and-steel bug, doled out stained-glass dragonflies and insect-shaped chocolates, which won them the award for "Best bribes."

"We encourage bribes," said artistic judge Richard Gorelick, whose black judge's robe was adorned with a pink Team Fifi button, several sets of beads from Team D-Vine and a foam amphibian pin from the museum's team piloting an enormous foam frog.

The race - in its fourth year in Baltimore and sponsored by the American Visionary Art Museum - isn't much of a race at all, considering that the top prize goes to the team that finishes in the middle of the pack. "It's a noncompetitive competitive race," explained Brown, who said that 11 kinetic sculpture races are run annually throughout the world.

Creativity and quirkiness are held in high esteem at the event, where the opening ceremonies included an all-kazoo rendition of the national anthem and the "blessing of Da Feet" of the pilots from the 21 participating teams.

One of the most colorful entries was the Hillbilly Ark from Boone, N.C. - a collection of three wheelchairs, three saucer-shaped sleds and seven beer kegs adorned with baubles and pinwheels and presided over by a papier-mache figure that creator Irmaly Brackin called "the fool who juggles the world."

The Hillbilly Ark won awards for "Best costume" and "Best art."

And then there was D-Vine, a cork-bedecked wooden wine vat complete with a plastic-grape-laden trellis; the pilots appeared to be crushing grapes with their feet as they navigated the course. D-Vine won awards for engineering and pit crew.

Soon after the race started, it became increasingly obvious that looks were not the only thing that mattered.

The impressive-looking Galloping Cow sailed through the opening parade at Rash Field only to limp its way up Federal Hill several minutes later because of a blown tire. The Frog, a several-hundred-pound, bright-green masterpiece, sustained four blown tires by noon, according to pilot Mark Ward, a deputy director of the American Visionary Art Museum.

And veteran competitor Jeff Bartolomeo's team from Oakland Mills High School couldn't seem to prevent its 400-pound scorpion sculpture, the Stinger, from a handful of breakdowns on land and in the water, many of which required welding to repair.

Stranded at the entrance to Patterson Park while the rest of the teams navigated the ice inside the Mimi DiPietro Ice Rink with their sculptures, Bartolomeo fired up a rented generator and helped patch his ailing 450-pound scorpion. A triathlete and winner of the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race title in 2000, the Towson resident used to view the race as a competition. Now he knows to enjoy it for what it is: "An alternative way to have fun."

"If you just show up at the starting line, you're a winner," he said.

Yesterday's East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Championship went to the Stinky Cheese Cart, created by Colin Germaine of Traverse City, Mich., but Bartolomeo's team took home awards for "Best half-baked idea" and the Golden Dinosaur award for "Most memorable breakdown."

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