So swiftly has the Handcar Regatta moved into a celebrated niche in North Bay culture that the very word “regatta” no longer seems strange. Usually a term referencing boat races, this Regatta hails the rails, and the fleets that rumble down them are distinctly land-locked.
Having just celebrated its third year, the Handcar Regatta is a superstar arts festival centered around the railroad tracks in downtown Santa Rosa. We wanted to honor it with a Boho Award the day after the first one flourished in September 2008. We =prudently waited until this year’s third annual fest could dazzle an estimated 15,000 attendees.
A celebration of art, technology and science, the Handcar Regatta evokes a world that never happened, a Jules Vernean ‘scape in which steam and fire rather than fossil fuels power amazing inventions—or, as Regatta graphic designer Kernan Coleman explained when tumbled with other core members into tight confines at the Bohemian offices the other day, “It’s the universe next door.”
In other words, it’s what you make of it. Which is entirely appropriate, because so many people toil for so many months of the year to make one Sunday afternoon in September so perfectly strange.
Coleman, supported by colleagues Kate Brouillet and Laurie Gibbs of Ranch 7 Creative, came up with the signage and initial design of the fest, which is heavily influenced by the steampunk aesthetic that mixes Victoriana with modern DIY culture. Coleman also invented the character of Dr. Erasmus P. Kitty, the fictional leader of the Regatta.
“Erasmus is a Chauncey Gardener/Forrest Gump character who is always in the wrong place at the right time,” Coleman explains. “He’s a lovable, loopy sort of character. He’s patterned after a lot of people I actually know.”
But Dr. Kitty would never have been birthed if Theresa Hughes and David Farish hadn’t come into Ty Jones’ interior design shop looking for a rug. Jones and festival cofounder Spring Maxfield had been brainstorming for a while on how to create a new arts festival for Santa Rosa. They knew that they didn’t want to do something like the Sausalito Art Festival; in fact, they sheepishly admit now, they were aiming for something a little grander, like Art Basel, the massive international art fair that swarms Germany each year.
Instead, they took inspiration from the Hennepin Crawler, a large mobile contraption that Farish was building with Skye Barnett, Clifford Hill and others. Farish was looking for funding to take the machine to Burning Man, and Santa Rosa was giving out arts grants. “I think that just talking to David was the match that sparked all of this gasoline that was everywhere about people wanting to be creative,” Jones says.
Farish says, “I was mentioning to Ty the possibility of using the tracks because they were dormant. Just sort of casually, we should build something to run up and down the tracks to use them, because nobody else is.”
Jones remembers: “As soon as they left, I was on the phone with Spring and it was like, there’s this thing . . .”
Maxfield says, “I was on the advisory board for the grants. Ty and I had been planning an arts festival, but we didn’t know what direction it was going to take. We wanted to use the SMART site and bring community to this area that had been blighted and waiting for developers to make community. We had never even thought about using the tracks until Ty was inspired by David’s machine and it was just like, that is it. That was the hook.”
Nine months later, the Handcar Regatta grandly commenced. Organizers, including Heather Prandini, hoped that perhaps 500 people would attend. Some 5,000 did. The next year, 10,000 showed. This year, some 15,000. Starting with $33,000, the Regatta now has twice that amount of operating budget. Plans are in the works to soon establish a brick-and-mortar arts center with an educational focus on building skill sets, like glass-making, canning and welding. A new core member, Joshua Stithem, is in charge of the educational component and the grant writing that will pay for everything.
But the real question remains. Did Hughes and Farish ever get that rug?
Hughes groans comically. “No! I never got my rug!”