June 16, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Art, engineering and a few bicycles

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June 15, 2006
ARCATA, Calif.--I'm riding along through the empty streets of this coastal college town on what can only be described as the bicycle Picasso would have built if he'd been told to throw a giant sculpture on top of it and provide seating for four.

This is "Extreme Makeover," and it is kinetic sculpture artist Duane Flatmo's latest creation. And I have to say, being inside it--for that's where we are, inside a giant abstract head--is really funny. Especially when we pedal past neighbors of Flatmo's who don't even blink at the incredible concoction. They just wave.

Kinetic sculptures

My visit here is the first stop on Road Trip 2006, my gadget, technology and geekery-filled journey around the Pacific Northwest. And a fitting first stop it is, as it presents a combination of engineering genius, artistic elegance and plain old fun.

Flatmo is one of the pre-eminent practitioners of kinetic sculpture racing, a pastime that started informally here in 1969 and now is celebrated with a giant three-day event involving dozens of entrants each Memorial Day weekend.

A kinetic sculpture, for those of you not familiar with the animal, is a human-powered machine engineered to cover long distances, ford rivers and cross sandy beaches. It is often a piece of great art to boot. And to visit the Arcata Kinetic Lab, which Flatmo operates along with several other teams, is like stepping into the dreams of an abstract painter who dabbles in making bicycles and entirely odd sculpture.

In any case, with this year's race behind him, Flatmo is nonetheless eager to show off "Extreme Makeover," which is about 10 feet tall, pinkish-orange and has really bad teeth.

From my vantage point inside the machine, I'm looking forward through its mouth and out beyond those teeth--a very unusual view.

Turf, surf, machinery
Back in the lab, where Flatmo has been tinkering for about 25 years, nearly every square inch of floor, wall and ceiling space is taken up with mementos of past kinetic sculpture races.

High in the rafters are a gorgeous green dragon, an entrant of Flamo's from a previous year, and a giant dog, a sculpture by June Moxon.

But down on the floor, right in the doorway of the lab and the very first thing I saw when Flatmo opened the garage door, is "Surf 'n Turf," a kinetic sculpture with a mechanical base he and his team has been racing since 1991 and a body that is about 3 years old.

Road Trip 2006

And "Surf 'n Turf" is no ordinary machine. It looks like some crustacean that got exposed to far too much radiation. It has giant, crab-like claws, bulging eyes, and off its back rises a beast that is part octopus and part starfish. And rising above the main part of its body is a massive bull's head. Naturally.

"Surf 'n Turf"--Flatmo tells me--is designed for six riders, with most parts moving as the people inside turn handles and pedal.

"The whole thing becomes this animated thing powered by human power," Flatmo explained, "so when kids see it, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, it's this (giant) moving thing.'"

For its part, "Extreme Makeover" seats only four. But what it lacks in extra seating it makes up for in sophisticated engineering. Flatmo explained that it has 18 speeds for street riding, and a second set of 18 speeds for riding across sand.

That's not to mention what it can do in water.

Because Flatmo and his compatriots have been at their game for so long, they are often seen as the source of many good ideas for other kinetic sculpture racers.

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