Not-so-serious art on parade

Mischief: The American Visionary Art Museum's sixth annual Kinetic Sculpture Race proves to be a marathon of merriment.

May 02, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

It must be spring in Baltimore; Fifi has taken to the streets.

The 14-foot-tall pink poodle, made with acres of fluffy pink tulle and giant blue plastic eyes, trundled through the streets of Baltimore yesterday, making at least its fourth appearance in the annual American Visionary Art Museum's annual Kinetic Sculpture Race.

But the diva dog was only one eye-catching element of the event, which entices participants to construct an artistic - and often outrageous - human-powered vehicle that can cover a 15-mile course over land and sea. Animals were a popular theme this year as Fifi was joined by a giant duck, a rat, a two-headed dragon, a part man/part cockroach (dubbed "La Kafkaracha") and a bobble-headed Gandhi atop a 15-foot elephant.

"There is nothing like this," said Allan Summers, who brought his wife, two sons and a family friend from Wallingford, Pa., to see the spectacle. "Everyone is having such a good time."

In fact, smiles were mandatory - with paper smiles on wooden sticks being handed out to the crowd - even during breakdowns, tough terrain and a police rescue of a circus train sculpture that floated away from the Canton waterfront.

This was the sixth year for the race, which combines mechanical ability, design flair and sheer endurance. The largest race of this type is run in California each year, but about a dozen variations have popped up around the country.

"It's just so sort of kindred to what we do at the museum," said Marcia Mjoseth Semmes, the museum's director of development. "We believe creativity is an empowering force. It can power anything, including transportation."

Bradford Sweet of Relay said he dressed up in cloth feathers, a yellow beak and yellow socks to pedal a giant bird's nest with co-pilot Teal Quinn of Arnold "for art's sake." An artist and birdhouse sculptor, Sweet said, "I want to let Baltimore know that there are a lot of wonderful artists out here."

Sweet's team received awards for best costume, art design, and the Pilots' Choice award decided by other pilots.

The event kicked off at the museum, where teams engaged in last-minute preparations and a mandatory brake test. After the traditional all-kazoo rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the group heard from Hobart Brown, the founder of kinetic sculpture racing.

"You guys are closing the gap between sports and the arts," said Brown, who started the first kinetic sculpture race in California.

The sculpture pilots then recited an oath to "uphold the kinetic code and not be a sourpuss" and had their feet blessed by a dancing man in a monk's habit.

Traditions are a big part of the race, Semmes said, as are some quirky rules.

The winner is the team that finishes in the middle of the pack. This year, that was Bumpo the Elephant.

Sock puppets must be made to ride along on the vehicles.

Bribing the judges is highly encouraged.

"What I love about this race is that it isn't one," said Ed Istwan of Baltimore, one of two judges dressed in black robes and long white wigs and giving out points for artistry.

"It is more of an exercise in one-upmanship than anything," he said. "Meanness is frowned upon."

Even with a lighthearted attitude, the race was not without its challenges.

The elephant, which included a water-spouting trunk, blocked the entrance to Federal Hill Park when it got a flat tire several minutes into the race. Daley the Duck, built by Catholic Community School of Baltimore with feathers constructed from 700 plastic milk jugs, bogged down in the Patterson Park mud pit. The mud was part of a series of obstacles set up at the park.

About a dozen young team members were left with nothing to do but start a mud fight.

But the biggest drama of the day was when the three-car circus train caught a gust of wind as it navigated through the water in Canton and started to drift off to sea.

With the crowd chanting "tow, tow, tow," the Baltimore City police boat pulled the "engine" back to the dock. Two volunteers in a kayak dragged in the two "box cars" and their human pedalers. It made a nice spectacle for viewers.

"It's always fun to see if they sink or swim," said George Epple of Reservoir Hill.

Epple set up chairs with his wife, Kathy, on a hill overlooking the Canton waterfront. He said the race "is just lots of fun ... it's crazy. It's kind of the way you want to see Baltimore."

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