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Kinetic sculptures: the art of people power
Special to The Seattle Times
PORT TOWNSEND — Think Mardi Gras on wheels. Toss in a little Boeing ingenuity, mix well with modern sculpture and sprinkle liberally with Shakespearean wit, and you've got yourself a kinetic-sculpture race.
Early each October — this year's race is Sunday — the salty streets of this bayside town erupt in displays of creative madness: a colorful combination of art, engineering and theater with an edge of friendly competition. After constructing human-powered road-, sand-, mud- and sea-worthy sculptures, the self-proclaimed "kineticnauts" test their contraptions' mettle on an eight-mile obstacle course. Everything they need for the race (from pontoons to repair kits to Power Bars) must be contained within the sculpture.
"The unique thing about this race is that it's a blending of engineering and art," said race archivist Louis Hightower. "These are frustrated engineers who want to be artists, or artists who feel like they need to expand their engineering prowess — it's a right brain/left brain thing, and teams usually consist of both."
Where and when
The Great Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Skulpture Race is at noon Sunday throughout the city of Port Townsend and nearby Fort Worden State Park. The start and finish line is at City Hall, at Madison and Water streets.
Attend the Saturday noon parade to get a good look at the sculptures and racers. The parade covers about seven blocks on Port Townsend's main downtown thoroughfare, Water Street, between U.S. Bank (1239 Water St.) and Monroe Street.
Race organizers also recommend attending the brake and flotation tests immediately following the parade.
On race day, a free shuttle bus leaves Monroe and Water streets every half-hour to take spectators to key viewing areas, such as the "Sand Trap" at Fort Worden State Park or the "Dismal Bog" at Jefferson County Fairgrounds. (Some spectators bicycle alongside the sculptures, choose a favorite and serve as spontaneous crew.) The water course is just offshore from Water Street, in the area of Union Wharf to Pope Marine Park.
For more details including a course map, see www.ptkineticrace.org.
"It's like a rolling carnival," said Steve Morgenstern, who has been involved with the race for 16 years. A mechanical engineer by trade, Morgenstern likes the challenge of designing human-powered machines. "They have to be really efficient — it's a creative outlet for me," he said. Builder of the now-retired, award-winning Spirit of Muckle Flugga (named after one of the Shetland Islands), which was once clocked at 35 mph, Morgenstern is at work on a leaner, lighter machine.
Nobody gets rich doing this. Prizes are limited to "booty" donated by local shopkeepers.
The sculptures can be simple, like one past entry, a hamster wheel-based creation built from an inner-tube by a 10-year-old girl from Chimacum; or complex, like 2005's four-pilot Magic Bus, which looks like the offspring of a monster truck and a school bus. Weighing in at 1,800 pounds, it features a pulley steering system and lever-controlled automobile disc brakes.
Magic Bus co-sculptor Katy Morse met her inventor husband, Charlie Bodony, seven years ago when she was crowned Rose Hips Kween, the kinetic racers' royalty (their spelling is as whimsical as the rest of the proceedings). "I knighted him, and now we're married; it's a true kinetic romance," she said. Morse's artistic eye complemented Bodony's engineering prowess, and the Magic Bus won five awards in May at the kinetic world championship three-day race from Arcata to Ferndale, Calif.
Morse and Bodony live kinetics so completely that they have even founded a company based on their sculpture, using it as a model for an all-terrain rescue vehicle.
Although the bus has been one of the more high-tech entries, Morse is quick to point out that you don't need a degree from MIT to enter the race. "Plenty of people show up with a bicycle, some Styrofoam, duct tape and a song," she said. "This is almost more in the true spirit of kinetic sculpture ... to have these last-minute, thrown together creations that take a lot of grit and good humor to survive the course."
"Survive" is an appropriate word for navigating a course that includes a 100-foot-long, three-foot-deep mud bog, a Fort Worden beach "sand trap," and a ¼-mile water leg where more than one sculpture has found its own finish line at the bottom of Port Townsend Bay. Not to mention the town's quad-busting hills. All this in costume! An added twist for this year's theme, "Follywood," requires racers to perform a scene from a movie.
In true kinetic-improv style, race veteran John Montgomery has decided on neither the name nor film scene for his celebrated Autocanoe. His 13-year-old son, Gabriel, will pilot the sculpture in the Port Townsend race for the third year in a row. Looking like a wooden canoe on wheels, the Autocanoe is powered by one pilot on a recumbent-style bicycle and was featured last year in a British television show called "Only in America."
Born in California
Kinetic-sculpture racing rolled into being in 1969 in Ferndale, Calif. An artist named Hobart Brown decided his son's tricycle needed a makeover and displayed the resulting "pentacycle" in his gallery window. A neighboring shop owner was inspired to build his own kinetic sculpture and challenged Brown to a race. In the name of fun and the power of collective silliness, similar races sprang up all along the West Coast — Port Townsend's dates to 1983. Races now happen in places as far away as Poland and Australia. In response to the oft-heard, "Why?" Brown's response was, "For the glory!" It's a kind of mantra now shared by kinetic enthusiasts around the globe.
"Why do we do it? For the glory! Because it sure hasn't been for the greenbacks," laughed Morse. "It's for the smiles on people's faces as they're watching you go by. They see what's possible and think, 'Hey, maybe I could do that, too!' "
Freelance writer Kathryn True, a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend, lives on Vashon Island.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company