Greetings from Northern California! I'm visiting one of my favorite places in the world, Eureka, California. People in Northern California know how to do things for themselves. One of the benefits of (relative) isolation is the development of, shall we say, unusual hobbies. One of the refreshing things about Eureka (and the surrounding communities of Arcata, Ferndale and Fortuna) is that just about everybody is an artist of one type or another. If you bring up the fact that you're an artist to somebody in Nebraska, you're liable to get a blank stare or a quizzical look, but mention it to somebody in Eureka, and you're more likely to get a conspiratorial nod because that person knits wooly hats out of belly button lint or paints nature scenes using different brands of barbecue sauce.
The crown jewel of the Humboldt County art scene is the annual Kinetic Sculpture race. I've written about it before, but it's been a couple of years, and bears repeating (or clarification at the very least). Here are the basics: The race happens once a year--on Memorial Day Weekend. Contestants must create people-powered vehicular works of art that can complete the entire 38-mile course. Piece of cake, right? Wait, there's more! The vehicles have to be able to navigate pavement, stretches of sand, muddy embankments, an expanse of the bay, and the Eel River. Over three days, contestants are pushed to their physical and creative limits.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the race. It was created in 1969 by local sculptor Hobart Brown (who sadly passed away late last year) who kept re-engineering his son's tricycle until it became a battle-tested prototype for kinetic sculpture vehicles to come. The idea caught on, and now folks come from all over the world to test the limits of kinetic sculpture. The event has spawned other events in Baltimore, Portland, and countless other cities across the country.
Today, I crossed an item off my bucket list that had been nagging me since my last visit to Eureka--a visit to the Kinetic Sculpture Museum in historic Ferndale (which serves as the finish line for the race, by the way). I didn't come away disappointed. One highlight was kicking back to watch a 30-minute documentary (on what looked to be an 8th generation bootleg VHS cassette) of the 25th Anniversay race back in 1993. I picked up a lot of information about the proceedings. I should probably have guessed it, but tips and tricks are passed down along dynastic lines. The powerful families that have come to dominate the race pass information from generation to generation. Kinetic sculpture is simply a way of life. As with any good craft, people grow up assuming kinetic sculpture obsession is a completely ordinary thing--they've never known anything different.
I learned about some of the arcane rules that accompany the race. Contestants are given a sobriety test and brake check at the starting line. They must also carry a 2-gallon bucket with them at all times (for reasons that I'm still a bit unsure of). The main goal of the race is to finish. Pushing a vehicle is considered to be a huuuuuge party foul, and will keep you from getting a major award, but the crowd will look the other way if it's the only way you can finish. Speaking of the crowd--they're generally supportive, but when it comes to the nautical portion of the race, they get kind of bloodthirsty, just waiting for a boat to flip over in the frigid bay.
Pictured above is "Extreme Makeover", which won the race back in 2005. I got to take this photo in person when I attended an open house for the Kinetic Sculpture Lab in Arcata, where some of the major vehicles are built and tested. Humboldt County is an amazing place where eccentricity is cultivated and prized even more than other crops more commonly associated with the area. The Kinetic Sculpture Race is a perfect expression of this proud belief in making things for oneself. This Memorial Day, do yourself a favor and make the trek to Arcata. Bring a life vest and a paddle!