Stationary kinetic sculptures that twist and turn with the slightest breeze are mesmerizing. Now imagine something like that as a human-powered vehicle.
If this sounds intriguing, you may want to attend this annual race showcasing creatively-designed wheeled contraptions. It’s unlike any other kind of race we know about.
We’re about to wind our way through the history of the kinetic sculpture race and why it’s truly a sight to behold.
Let’s get rolling!
What Is the Kinetic Sculpture Race?
Held in Baltimore, Maryland, each May, this may be the craziest race you’ll ever witness. Participants spend months planning and building their rideable kinetic sculptures in hopes of winning the championship.
The entries must be able to race successfully over land, water, sand, and mud. Additionally, they have to be works of art. Any old bike won’t do. You’ll often see animals, mythical creatures, and amphibians represented among the racing vehicles.
The kinetic sculptures in the race have at least two wheels, but most have three, four, or more to improve their function. Believe it or not, one guy races a unicycle every year and has an inflatable kayak to manage the water portion. But the likelihood of him winning seems unlikely.
Most entries involve multiple pilots, or kinetinauts, powering their artistic creations. The more legs pushing the sculptures forward, the better.
The race covers 15 miles and includes an initial incline up the steep Federal Hill. If the vehicles succeed in the climb, they’ll test their sea legs at the waterfront. The kinetic sculptures that make it through that portion will face a sand pit and, finally, some mud.
A total of 14 awards are up for grabs, and you don’t even need to cross the finish line to win. The kinetic sculpture finishing in the middle of the race wins the Grand Mediocre East Coast Championship. In fact, this award is the most coveted among participants.
Other awards include Best Bribe, Next to Last, and the Golden Dinosaur, honoring the most memorable sculpture to fall apart. It’s not all silliness that wins the race. Engineering, speed, and creativity are also given special recognition.
Has the Kinetic Sculpture Race Always Been in Baltimore?
The Kinetic Sculpture Race began in 1969 in the Northern California town of Ferndale. A local artist, Hobart Brown, upgraded his son’s tricycle by adding more structural material and two more wheels. The new trike became the Pentacyle.
Hobart’s neighbor, Jack Mays, saw his design and figured he could develop something better. Mays challenged Brown to a race during the upcoming arts festival in town.
Additional participants built their own kinetic sculptures to test their engineering alongside Mays and Brown. But the winner of the inaugural event was Bob Brown of nearby Eureka. His vehicle was a smoke-emitting turtle that laid eggs. Talk about creativity and functionality!
The original racecourse in Humboldt County consisted of one city street. Today, however, it spans three days and covers 42 miles along the Pacific Coast. In comparison, the 15-mile Baltimore route almost seems effortless.
In 1999, Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) worked with Hobart Brown to start the first race on the East Coast. Every year since then, AVAM’s sponsored the event in their city.
Is There a Kinetic Sculpture Race Mascot?
There sure is a mascot for this quirky race. A giant pink poodle named Fifi entered the competition for the first time in 2001. AVAM’s Director of Design, Theresa Segreti, created Fifi after helping her daughter make a cotton candy food sculpture.
The foundation consists of two bicycles side-by-side, with steel and mesh forming the body. Three hundred yards of pink ballerina tulle and plastic pom poms bring Fifi to life. Two pilots maneuver the poodle through the 14-mile course.
Over the last two decades, Fifi won several race awards but never the most prestigious Grand Mediocre Champion prize. While that’s a testament to her solid foundation, we hope she can claim that title someday!
When not racing, Fifi sits on display at the AVAM. Next time you’re in the Baltimore area, pay her a visit.
Who Hosts the Kinetic Sculpture Race?
The American Visionary Art Museum has been hosting the race since it arrived in Baltimore in 1999. The event is a perfect match for AVAM’s mission.
Their definition of visionary art includes creations based on listening to the inner voices of the creator’s soul. Sometimes, the artist may not even think of their pieces as art. But they know it was born from an inner vision.
In 1984, AVAM’s founder Rebecca Hoffberger envisioned an art space for displaying artwork emphasizing creative and intuitive design. At the time, Hoffberger worked at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital in the Department of Psychiatry. Many of the patients there impressed her with their artistic abilities.
Fast forward 11 years and Hoffberger’s dream becomes a reality. AVAM opened its doors to the public on Thanksgiving weekend in 1995. Since then, the museum has received numerous awards and recognition for its leadership in visionary and intuitive arts.
Why You Should Visit the American Visionary Art Museum
AVAM specializes in exhibiting artwork created by Outsider artists. Often self-taught and untrained in artistic styles, people from all different walks of life represent the genre. It’s common to find pieces made by prisoners, farmers, and people with mental illnesses on display at the museum.
The exhibits at AVAM include kinetic sculptures, films, paintings, and artwork created from discarded materials. It’s all exciting, inspiring, and unlike anything, you’ll see in most art museums.
Curved hallways, stairwells, and rounded gallery walls add to the uniqueness of this museum. Greeting visitors as they approach the building is a large mirrored mosaic facade. Local at-risk youth created the visually-stimulating display.
A gift shop featuring eccentric gifts and a cafe are also part of the AVAM experience. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays and costs $15.95 for adults. They offer discounts for seniors and students, and kids under six get in for free.
Get Kinetic in Baltimore
If Baltimore wasn’t already on your list of places to visit, it might be now! The Kinetic Sculpture Race is an event not to miss if you’re there in May. And the American Visionary Art Museum is just one of Baltimore’s many galleries displaying incredible artwork.
Have you been to the Kinetic Sculpture Race? Let us know about the experience in the comments below.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!