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Nova Labs at the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race

2024 Nova Labs Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race troupe.

It is not hard to picture a kinetic sculpture, or a race. But when the terms are put together, all bets are off! Wikipedia defines kinetic sculpture races as, “organized contests of human-powered amphibious all-terrain works of art.” While this barely scratches the surface, the event does involve such vehicles and it is somehow organized, if you are not too picky about semantics. As for the racing part, getting to the finish line quickly would diminish the enjoyment of the circus/parade/social part of the event so nobody tries too hard… plus, The Next to Last Award is a coveted one!

Nova Labs’ CAP team has been participating in the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, the favorite child of the American Visionary Art Museum (, since 2019. Here is a brief history of our sculptures.

2020 - COVID canceled

2021 - Wrecking Bear (that year the sculptures were shrunk and the race was online) - Won the Engineering Award

2022 - Time Maker - Won the Time Warp Award for its time traveling theme

2024 - Long Sphynx - Won the Monumental Masterpieces Award

CAP, if you don’t know, are a group of members that promote and organize community art projects. It's worth noting that the word organize is used very loosely, though. While many efforts are made to keep things in control, consciously or not, we tend to err on the side of not stifling creativity. It’s a CAP thing!

Anyway, planning for this year’s race started back in the Fall of 2023. A well engineered modular vehicle that would be reliable and last us many years was designed and agreed upon… but never built. It was estimated that it would cost about two grand in materials alone (art work and costumes aside). So, lacking a budget, the new year arrived and we had no vehicle. 

And yet, it moves.

It was around February when Paul, Joe and Kevin started welding pieces of old bikes to concoct the octocycle that currently lives in the Labs parking lot. It features an emergency brake and other parts recovered from previous sculptures and, most valuable of all, the experience gained from previous builds. The fact that this untested vehicle finished the race and bravely endured the various terrain obstacles is a testament to the ingenuity and tenacity of our engineers, not to the quality of the raw materials.

This year’s official theme was Monuments and Masterpieces, so after discussing the issue to exhaustion, creating an Egyptian sphinx was suggested by Steve and adopted by whomever attended that meeting. Working within a team whose members are often called away by their serious responsibilities often means going with the flow and letting things happen. I can’t say I was thrilled about the sphinx idea but, not being able to offer a convincing alternative, I let the theme grow on me. In all truth, by the time I worked on the costumes, I was 100% committed to Egyptian cliché. 

An attempt to a noodle spiral body, eventually discarded.
The sphinx temporarily had two posterior left feet.

A sphinx head was designed, 3D printed and painted (you can admire it in the 3D Printangle). Later on, after a failed attempt to create a paper maché sphinx, Sam designed a body to go with the head. It was laser cut from many sheets of insulation foam.

To add a bit of nostalgia for our 2019 sculpture that featured wings that decorated Orange Bay for many years, Sam, Rocio, Debbie and Jeanne assembled a pair of wings for our sphinx. When it came time to paint the artwork, Netto graciously lent us his painting skills.

Making foam angels.
Hollywood Egyptian Revival style.

Dressing people for the Kinetic Race is challenging. You never know if they will be biking in the sun, but they will be out all day and the costumes need to be comfortable for heat and water. The team is usually ten to fifteen members, so the costumes need to be easy to make and mostly one size fits all.

To dress heads, you have to consider that biking helmets are required. This year’s costumes consisted of a white tunic secured with a gold and black belt and colorful collars displaying geometric designs. They were made with assistance from Jalene, Rocio, Sarah, and Debbie. The helmets were decorated with golden cobras thanks to Thingiverse user Peter3dmaker, Thomas, Dean and Netto.

Scarab pendants stuck in traffic.

Bribing the judges and fake cops is a staple of the Kinetic Sculpture Race. There is even an award for the best bribe. I was sure we were going to win that one since one of the judges assistants spent the entire day brandishing a scepter we gave him. No such luck. But we made lots of people happy with the scarab pendants Paul designed.

Notice the guy brandishing the Multipurpose Ankh Scepter we made. The ankh is one of the most familiar of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Putting it on a scepter follows a well established Party City tradition.

Emotional support Anubis, god of funerary practices and guide to the underworld.

An important rule for the Kinetic Scuplture Race that must not be to overlooked is that each sculpture must, at all times, carry, "one comforting item of psychological luxury heretofore referred to as the Homemade Sock Creature (HSC).” Staying within the theme, our HSC this year was a sock Anubis.

Race day arrived and, of course, we were not ready. Shane jumped in with some last minute welding, trying to get the sculpture in shape for transportation to Baltimore.

Shane wrapping up some last minute welding before heading to Baltimore.

And finally, ready or not, there we went! The Kinetonauts were Paul, Joe, Sam, Kevin and myself, Fabiana. We normally would have had six, but a pair of pedals broke early in the day so we raced with an empty seat. The Pit Crew were Jeanne, Thomas and Shane, with the support trailer.

The Long Sphinx’s journey begins.
One of the few dry moments of the day.

The race covers 15 miles through the streets of downtown Baltimore (see route), where some Baltimore residents come out to watch the race and others are taken by surprise when, suddenly, their normal routine was interrupted by a parade of craziness. The morning part of the race starts with a steep climb up Battery Avenue, then around Federal Hill Park, where the crowds really seemed to enjoy our scarab pendants. It rained most of the day but luckily it was not cold. 

Water challenge, check!

We arrived at Canton Waterfront Park for the water challenge at lunch time. There, Debbie had set up a lovely and delicious rest station.

Partly due to the rest of us not wanting to get any wetter, and partly because the flotation devices on the sculpture were untested, Paul and Joe took on the Harbor portion of the race on their own. It took them a while because it was hard for two people to maneuver such a long sculpture, but they were able to go around the pier as required. 

After lunch we headed to Patterson Park for the rest of the challenges. First up was the Sand Challenge, where we had to get our sculpture through a sand pit that stretches a few yards. It's always been a full-team effort, requiring help from the entire pit crew. This year was the first year we made it all the way through, solely on sheer pedaling power! It was rather exhilarating. (see video)

Next up was the Mud Challenge. The track is covered in deep mud, and goes up a hill. The mud is yucky and the incline makes it exponentially more slippery and difficult. But all of that just made it more rewarding to be able to get through the challenge without assistance and without dismounting. I barely got my shoes dirty! (there is video too)

Paul is showing off muddy toes and pointing out that we have conquered all 4 challenges.

With only a few minor repairs, we made it back to the American Visionary Art Museum in time for dinner and awards. Only Jeanne, Paul and I were left when the surprise came: we were awarded the Monumental Masterpieces Award because “what is more monumental than an Egyptian sculpture?”—said one of the judges. The award is granted to the sculpture that best expresses the theme of the year’s race. The trophy, possibly the tallest in the history of the Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race, is one of a kind art piece created by Baltimore metal artist Carl Byrne especially for the race. It was made with sheet metal, glass objects and LEDs controlled by an app. What an honor to bring home the work of such a remarkable maker!

The trophy is taller than Paul!

And that was a brief account of our adventures at the 2024 BKSR. We will start planning for 2025 in the Fall. Meanwhile you can find out what else is going on in the #cap, #cardboard_regatta and #kinetic-sculpture channels. All participation is welcome, big, small, long term, short term, practical or theoretical. We know you are busy, we’ll take what you can offer. CAP activities are a great way to interact with other makers, to show your kids you can be fun too, and to practice patience: things will break and your fellow team members will try to be gracious but not always succeed. “Teamwork… is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results," said Andrew Carnegie. I tell you, nothing more uncommon than a kinetic sculpture race. 

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