Kinetic Sculpture On the Roll

MY first penciled sketch, on a dinner napkin, roughly showed a stretched 10-speed: a bicycle designed so that I could recline nearly parallel to Mother Earth while I pedaled steadily along. Over top of the bike, I'd attach a clear fiberglass canoe, like an aerodynamic umbrella, held by a series of reinforced struts. When I reached the water's edge, I could flip the assembly over the float. All the notion needed was a propeller linked into the drive gears, a harness to hold me secure while I was upside-down on the water, some eye-catching fluorescent doodads (maybe I'd paint part of the canoe to look like an Eskimo totem pole), and a bit more think time.

Yet, admiring the human-powered vehicles at this year's Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race, I'm relieved that I didn't go with my initial imagining and have decided, instead, to gather good ideas and parts for next year. When individuals focus their creative energies on the same goal, the results can be marvelous, if not a bit daunting.

It's Memorial Day weekend. Artists and part-time inventors from around the United States have converged on Arcata, a small lumber town that sits near the redwood-blanketed mountains on the misty coast of northern California. They're here to test their fantasy vehicles against a 38-mile, three-day course crossing sand dunes, mud flats, Humboldt Bay, and the Eel River. No motors can provide forward motion, only the energy packed inside the human body.

Wearing his top hat and mustache, Hobart Brown, a local metal sculptor and the race organizer, reminds me of a circus ringmaster as he talks with me.

Brown staged the first ``kinetic experiment'' in 1969 with six artist friends. Brown's vehicle? His son Justin's tricycle, which the senior Brown decided, during a creative whirlwind, to modify. ``I got carried away,'' he recalls. Dubbed the ``Penta-cycle,'' the trike ended up sporting five wheels, two seats, headlights, and a roof.

Over the years, Brown's ideas have grown along with his race. His home-welded, purple and pink delivery truck measures 12 feet high, weighs 3,600 pounds, and demands a crew of 14 cyclists. But it's not the only kinetic sculpture that captures my eye today.

I watch as three cracked eggs, each the size of a comfortable love seat and joined together, scoot around the streets bordering the town square. The weather is cold, drizzling, and the riders are warming their leg muscles before the siren signals the start. The lead egg sports a pancake-shaped pontoon underneath and a screaming papier-m^ach'e chicken as a hood ornament.

The spectators, estimated at 10,000, mill around these 40 or so odd conveyances. Each vehicle displays a sizable appreciation for fun; the Cheshire cat with its big blinking eyes, pedaled by two women dressed as polka-dot shoes; an espresso coffee cup with a tiny propeller - cup of fools. Some vehicles expose the sloppiness of their creators, thrown together with baling wiring and cardboard. While other contraptions look as if they should have existed long before this event.

Contraptions. The word fits these things. They are far from being dignified or digital enough to be called machines. To me, so much of today's technology appears deceptively flawless, conceived in sterile rooms and divorced from the random wonders of the human condition. Most machinery lacks a sense of humor, and therefore a sense of humanity. Computers are all so serious, but not these kinetic sculptures.

People walk up and examine the vehicles because they can comprehend, for the most part, the webs of gears, the cranks, chains, and pedals. Simple metaphors of the mind, the designs readily reveal the weaknesses and the strengths of their inventors, their preoccupations and natural dispositions. The crowd cheers as a couple of middle-aged Navy men cycle by on what resembles a plywood PT boat.

The crazy sculptures stir the inventor within me. I have enjoyed building things since Dad bestowed me with his well-used Meccano set when I was in kindergarten. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg always fascinated me with his drawings of impossible contraptions that performed rudimentary tasks - my favorite being an automatic stamp licker activated by a dwarf robot who overturned a can of ants onto a page of postage stamps, gum-side up. (The anteater had to be hungry for everything to work.)

Now, the act of tinkering provides a welcome diversion from my job as a newspaper reporter. I quickly repair a broken automatic pencil sharpener, extending the instrument's gearing to include a world globe that rotates on top when a pencil is inserted. I construct my fish aquariums from discarded television sets. I transform a cow skull discovered in the desert into an AM radio using ancient electronic tubes, a speaker, and wiring.

Inventing comes easier to me than essays. Incongruous ideas are combined and expressed more naturally with three dimensional constructions than with writing. A physical invention or behavior captures an idea long before we tag a word to it. A prehistoric tribe must have noticed a log rolling down a hillside, employed the concept - then, at their leisure, they finally named it. And mothers surely snuggled their babies to their chests long before they secured a term for love.

As I watch the vehicles enter Humboldt Bay, the second day of the race, it occurs to me that the choppy waves might capsize any canoe contraption I'd design.

A one-man, plastic foam school bus barrels down the boat launch and plunges into the water. The inventor engages the paddle wheels and confidently waves to the cheering crowd. Too soon, his off-balance bus slowly tilts, dumps him into the cold ocean, and sinks. Still smiling, he's fished out by the Coast Guard personnel who lend their support every year.

An expertly crafted marvel called The Happy Swanderer - the crowd favorite - completes the crossing in three hours. It's piloted by one woman in a purple leotard and rainbow tutu.

``It has got 40 to 60 gears. We stopped counting,'' says Micki Flatmo, an artist and exercise physiologist from nearby Eureka. Her husband and a friend, an engineer, helped her construct the Swanderer in three months. It's covered with a skin of white wedding lace and shaped like a swan.

Sunday night, everyone bivouacks on the beach using camping gear that had to be stored on their vehicles. The following afternoon about half the contestants cross the finish line, some only by pushing and pulling. Many contraptions have mangled their drive chains or snapped their frames on the sand dunes and mud flats, but most of the tinkerers are still grinning like madmen.

Vehicles showing the best artwork, speed, and engineering are awarded trophies sculpted by the community's artists. Other honors include best costume, next-to-last place, first to break down (the dinosaur award), and the mediocrity award for finishing exactly in the middle of the pack.

After the festivities, I visit Brown's warehouse where he displays flamboyant vehicles from years past. The kinetic sculptures mimic everything from alligators to Ticonderoga pencils. I think that next year, when I'm a contestant, I'll pose as Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, the fictional tinkerer of Rube Goldberg's cartoons.

Brown tells me to rummage through the pile of discarded bike parts behind the building and grab whatever I might need. I question him about the most unusual contraption he has ever witnessed.

``A pump car made entirely from resin and string.''

And the most common contraption?

``Almost every year we get somebody who enters with some sort of bike and canoe getup.''

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