While it may not be widely known about outside of Humboldt County, the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race has taken on cult-like status in the Northern California communities of Arcata, Eureka, Ferndale and everywhere in between.
Marking its 50th year this Memorial Day weekend, the Kinetic Sculpture Race is a human-powered trek over land, sand and water that covers more than 40 miles and lasts three days. Participants in teams of up to a dozen must design, build and pedal their artistic creations on wheels. These creations can take on the forms of imaginative creatures and contraptions, and the event has become a pastime for many artists and makers in the area, including Santa Rosa artist and teacher Dawn Thomas.
“We started building kinetic sculptures before we knew about the race,” says Thomas, who had previously designed mobile works of art for events like the Rivertown Revival in Petaluma with her partner Bob.
Once she heard about the race, Thomas knew she had to participate. After her first race in 2014, she was hooked.
“We’ve been racing ever since,” she says. “It’s kind of a profound cultural experience to be somewhere that’s had a race for three generations. Everybody knows about it, everywhere you go you’re a celebrity because you’re in the race, and all the people in the race are lovely. A lot of them are lifers.”
Soon after joining the ranks, Thomas looked around for a book on the subject, but found virtually nothing documenting the event. “I could see it in my head; a giant coffee table book with all these pictures and all this history,” she says.
For more than three years, Thomas made it her mission to track down hundreds of stories and compile hundreds of never-before-seen photos for the new 600-page book Kinetic Kompendium: 50 Years of Kinetic Sculpture Racing.
“I think I was the right person to come along at the right time in a way,” says Thomas.
Thomas dug through newspaper archives, interviewed countless people and combed through boxes in attics throughout Northern California to find the various ephemera that makes up the “Kompendium.”
R Thomas would ideally like to see something similar to the Kinetic Sculpture Race take place in Sonoma County. “I feel like if it was done correctly, it would be a tremendous success,” she says. “We have the bike-builders, people who want to do outdoor sports, people who are creative.”
Until then, anyone with an interest in the race will enjoy thumbing through the Kinetic Kompendium and should consider traveling to Humboldt to see the race first hand. “There are so many amazing images out there of this race,” says Thomas. “It’s a spectacle.”