In the long annals of art, sport and downhill coasting, there has never been anything quite like the second Artists' Soap Box Derby—except maybe the first. Sport and art met briefly on a hillside in San Francisco, and the issue of the union was a happy hybrid for which 87 Bay Area artists created 87 sculptures, placed them on wheels of one sort or another and sent them careening down a 1,000-foot incline to the cheers of thousands of delighted spectators. As art, said one critic, the Derby was grass-roots surrealism. As sport, it was obviously cheerful anarchy. And as downhill coasting, it occasionally seemed to defy both gravity and description.
"If one of these cars runs into you," said the cheery voice of an announcer, "remember, you are being hit by a work of art!" Since the occasion was perhaps the last Artists' Soap Box Derby, it would have been an honor.
POPSICLES AND PYTHONS
Some of the works were bizarrely beautiful, others simply bizarre. They bore no resemblance to each other and even less to any known conveyance, but each was a sight for sore eyes and a tonic for dulled senses.
July 22, 1979
One hundred Bay Area artists were invited last spring by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to create something, anything, that would roll down a slope in McLaren Park on the city's southern edge. Sponsors were solicited to contribute toward the expenses of creation, and a catalog of the artists and their entries was compiled; e.g., "The Ant Farm is a group of artists and architects formed in San Francisco in 1968. They work in various mediums and are most widely known for the Cadillac Ranch, an environmental sculpture of 10 Cadillacs buried nose down in a wheat field in Amarillo, Texas."
Ever so gently, it was suggested by the museum organizers that, in the interest of safety, the rolling stock be reasonably limited in size and that the vehicles have drivers to steer them safely down the course. Naturally, the artistic temperament being what it is, in some cases both these suggestions were ignored. One entry, a tiny metal box with wheels that flew balloons and shot off small rockets, was radio-controlled. An entry called Amelia's Silver Cloud, with an aviatrix in helmet and goggles at its helm, perhaps should have been. It traveled 25 yards and rolled over, was righted, went another 100 yards, rolled over again, was righted, and so on to the bottom of the hill.
Sculptor Al Farrow carved a reclining human figure the size of a tree trunk that caused an awed spectator to suggest the immediate evacuation of the crowd to Twin Peaks, three miles away.
Extravaganzas such as Larry Fuente's jeweled bug, every square inch of which was covered with swirls of beads, buttons, mirrors, door keys, colored pencils, table knives and miniature plastic toys, drew gasps of admiration from the tweedy set observing from the top of the hill. An ingenious Polaroid Land Rover "camera," five feet high and spewing four-foot-square "snapshots" as it descended, drew gasps of fear when it suddenly veered into a solid wall of blue jeans halfway down the hill. And finally, gasps—not to mention howls, squeals and titters—echoed off the grassy hillsides and through the dark stands of Monterey pine when five people, one of them an immense young woman in a Valkyrie headdress, all riding on the frame of an ersatz Model T, simultaneously threw off their clothes and careened to the bottom of the hill draped only in an eight-foot-long live python.
"It's exciting, it's funny, people have a good time. And there's art in the vehicles, the trophies, in the crowd," said Henry T. Hopkins, the distinguished-looking director of the SFMMA. Hopkins, normally a three-piece-suit sort of man, was a minor masterpiece himself on Derby Day, his silver mustache and gold-rimmed glasses set off as they were by a well-worn pith helmet.
As John de Marchi, a bush-bearded art instructor at Sonoma State College, took off, supine and feet-first on his Sonoma Flyer 3, an adolescent onlooker muttered admiringly, "Look at the sucker go!"
Ronald Jolliffe's giant orange Popsicle would have stopped any show not staged on a rather steep grade. As it was, his 13½-foot creation with two sticks separated neatly, as a Popsicle should, halfway down the hill, each half proceeding to the finish on its own. For Jolliffe, who is an instructor in ceramics and sculpture at Indian Valley College in Novato, Calif., the day was a merging of art and philosophy. "Popsicles don't cost much, and they can easily be broken to share with friends. I think I really like things that are still O.K. when they break," he said.
Like its predecessor, the second Artists' Soap Box Derby was a critical and financial success. Fifteen thousand dollars were raised for the SFMMA's acquisition fund for the purchase of works by Bay Area artists; artists of widely varied persuasions mingled amicably for a day; small children came into contact with art and found it didn't hurt; and the sport of downhill coasting took at least as many technological strides forward as back.
The fact that there have been a first and a second Derby, separated though they were by three years, would seem to imply there might be a third someday, but so far there are no definite plans. As a museum volunteer said, "It takes everybody at least a year to recover from the last one."
Flushed with excitement, or embarrassment, Tyrone Head guides his creation downhill.
The whimsical vehicle sure can go, the key being hidden wheels.