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Hobart Brown, 73; artist founded wacky yearly sculpture race

November 10, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

It started in 1968 when Hobart Brown, a Northern California metal sculptor and art gallery owner, took his son Justin's tricycle and, in a burst of Rube Goldberg-like creativity, used its parts in creating a pentacycle: a five-wheeled, 5 1/2 -foot-tall red contraption with wrought-iron curlicues, a steering wheel and a surrey-like top.

Fellow sculptor Jack Mays laughed when he saw what Brown had wrought, then said he could build an even better kinetic sculpture.

Mays went on to create a pedal-powered, 12-foot-high Army tank. But that wasn't the end of it.

As Brown later told the SF Weekly: "In America, if you have two of anything, you have to race."

On Mother's Day 1969, Brown, Mays and entrants manning nine other pedal-powered, wacky works of art raced down Main Street in Ferndale, a 19th-century Victorian village south of Eureka.

With a crowd of spectators there for the annual arts festival urging them on, artist Bob Brown won the brief race. His winning entry? A whimsical tortoise that laid eggs, squirted water and emitted a loud mating call.

Thus was born the Kinetic Sculpture Race, an annual event that has been called "one of the nuttiest races in the nation."

Brown, who came to be called "the glorious founder" of the race and typically showed up at the event in top hat and tailcoat, died of pneumonia Wednesday at Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna, near Ferndale, after several years of poor health due to rheumatoid arthritis, said his son, Justin. He was 73.

As an artist, Brown was known for his copper, brass and steel representational sculptures.

But it's the annual race, which has inspired similar events across the country and as far away as Poland and Australia, that gave the mustachioed artist unexpected fame.

"He lived for it," Justin Brown said of the race.

"It was very much a part of his DNA, and he was active in it until he couldn't physically do it."

The race early on grew into a three-day Memorial Day event that one year had nearly 100 entries and has attracted widespread media attention, from Popular Mechanics and Smithsonian magazines to "Good Morning America."

The race now covers 42 miles, beginning in Arcata and ending in Ferndale, and traverses not only streets and highways, but also sand, mud, gravel and water.

Some of the contraptions come equipped with Styrofoam or inflatable pontoons and are propelled by paddle wheels or propellers.

The people-powered sculptures have become increasingly elaborate.

Brown's entries were as varied as the "Ball-bearing Bordello" -- a creation complete with lace curtains and scantily clad women -- and the "Quagmire Queen," which boasted four giant wheels and four paddle wheels and was propelled by a crew of eight, with Brown at the helm.

As he once explained the idea behind the race in an interview with the Eureka Times-Standard: "We're adults having fun so kids will want to get older."

Artist Duane Flatmo, who has been competing since 1982, said the race "is like a giant stage for all of us to try out our ideas on."

Among his friends, the fun-loving Brown was known as charming and quick-witted.

"His love for what he was doing was so infectious that he would have you on board, wanting to help him and be a part of it," said Flatmo, adding that Brown, as founder and organizer of the race, "went broke sometimes trying to do it."

Said longtime friend Bob Brown: "He was quite a promoter. He could make me work all through the night and make it fun instead of a task."

There was, Flatmo said, "a real mystique about Hobart. He lived in this really crazy place: upstairs in this Victorian home that had suits of armor lining the walls and secret passageways to hidden rooms."

Brown's house on Main Street -- the bottom floor housed his Hobart Galleries -- was the setting for some "amazing theme parties during the old days," Flatmo said.

They included "peasants' feasts," at which guests "dressed as peasants, ate turkey drumsticks, drank wine and people would jump up on the tables and dance," said Flatmo.

And Brown's Halloween parties were legendary.

Flatmo recalled one in the 1980s at which one of Brown's costumed friends took guests through various "haunted" rooms in the upstairs living quarters then stopped at a door and warned them not to enter the room if they had heart problems because behind the door was the scariest thing they'd ever see.

"We're thinking monsters," recalled Flatmo, "and there's Hobart sitting in a bubble bath scrubbing his back with his top hat on and saying, 'Oh, my God, I'm late. I've got to get down to the party.' "

Born Feb. 27, 1934, in Hess, Okla., Brown moved to Los Angeles as a child. He served a stint in the Army as a helicopter mechanic and moved to Humboldt County in the early 1960s.

In addition to Justin, the twice-divorced Brown is survived by three other children, Mark, Michael and Emily; his brother, Coy Brown; a half brother, Phillip Ostler; and nine grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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