The Great Flying Machine Race

Posted on 5.11.2016 by Paddy Swanson


Mitch Ryerson, that master of woodworking whimsy, was the one who had the idea. Mitch, who is a consummate craftsman with his own furniture making and sculpture studio, is well known for his work on children’s playgrounds and for his transformation of tree stumps into delightful sculptures and kid-friendly installations. (My personal favorite is his Winnie the Pooh house on Hurlbut Street in Cambridge. Hundreds of visitors have visited the little house and peeked through the windows at the inhabitants and left notes in the visiting book.) Over the years Mitch has built a number of beautiful props for Revels and has been the go-to expert when real craftmanship was required.


In 1999 Revels mounted an Italian Renaissance production and I asked Mitch if he could make us a flying machine based on the 15th-century drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci. Using appropriate technology and materials i.e. bent wood, muslin, leather, string, rubber bands and glue, Mitch and Revels carpenter Andy Barnett created the machine. Part boat, part bird, part sculpture, the result was (and is) a beautiful artifact.

That Christmas, audiences were invited to its maiden flight in Sanders Theatre and watched as with flapping wings (and the judiciously applied assistance of four stout audience members) it ascended above the heads of the chorus.  Since then it had been carefully packed away in our warehouse. Mitch’s big idea was to bring the machine out of moth balls and enter it in the revived People’s Sculpture Race which was to be a major feature of the 2015 Cambridge River Festival. All that was required he said was a team of pullers, someone to steer and a pilot to sit inside and crank the wheel that flapped the wings. I offered to don my pith helmet and walk in front with the map of the course and a red flag (per the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1861.) We agreed and it was a plan.

The World Sculpture Racing Society was initiated by Geoffrey Koetsch and Kirby Scudder in Wisconsin in the 1980’s and revived as The People’s Sculpture Race by performance artist Christian Herold in 2015. The race came with a long manifesto but relatively simple criteria. Our Leonardo Flying machine seemed to fit all the guidelines so we filed our application. 


On the day of the race we assembled somewhere in the side roads around Central Square.

Contestants were putting finishing touches to their contraptions. There was a cross-eyed donkey on roller skates who carried a travelling library, a fish bicycle, a great flock of birds that went up and down, a wheely thing with a 0 degree turning circle and a huge device with square wheels that required specialized tracks to be laid down in front and collected at the rear (not for these designers any shallow or passing fads – round wheels indeed!)


The Flying Machine was carefully unpacked and assembled under the watchful eyes of several observers who looked like punters at the Kentucky Derby. The observers passed amongst the competitors muttering about torque and wind resistance and scribbling in notebooks. We rolled our device through the crowd to the starting gate and carefully laid out the ropes on the ground. We were ready.


A loud horn brought us to attention. At this point the organizers made the interesting decision to declaim the manifesto through an antique microphone:


The First Manifesto of Sculpture Racing:


SCULPTURE RACING is kinetic art in which both artwork and mover are perceived as one; sculpture races are dynamic groupings of art objects and personalities

SCULPTURE RACING exists in the zone between high art and mass culture; it is moveable art that may appear anywhere, not necessarily where one expects it

SCULPTURE RACING takes art out of the galleries and museums and into the streets

SCULPTURE RACING blends art with the ambience of the popular festival, making it more accessible to the general public

SCULPTURE RACING brings artists out of the isolation of the studio and into public: it brings the public into contact with artist-as-personalities in an atmosphere that is relaxed and open, allowing an easy give-and-take

SCULPTURE RACING offers artists relief from the uncertainties of subjective criticism and art historical evaluation by giving them the clear-cut winner, loser, first, second, third place ranking enjoyed by athletes

SCULPTURE RACING embraces the competitiveness of the modern art world that compels artists to throw themselves into promotion, mass marketing and popular appeals

SCULPTURE RACING is the focus of a protest against the new political conservatism with its accompanying cuts in social programs and funding for the arts, the results of which have engaged artists in all media in a desperate race for survival

SCULPTURE RACING is an art of social-aesthetic dialectics:

Ultimately the “Art of Sculpture Racing” per se will not reside in individual art objects—not even in individual sculpture races—but rather….


By this time the jockey of the wheely thing was beginning to look decidedly drowsy.....



But then the proceedings were interrupted by another loud horn. There was some discussion as to whether this was an accident, a protest or actually the starting signal. We decided the latter.  Our gallant team picked up the ropes and we were off!


I was at something of a disadvantage since I had to run backwards as part of my job was to assess the likelihood of the wings clearing cars and lampposts. The problem was that the 4m.p.h. speed limit suggested by the crafters of the locomotive act of 1861 was being violated - big time! Our athletic pullers sprinted away like racehorses and clutching my flag and map I had to leap out of their way and adjust to a new position bellowing out directions from the rear.

 Leonardo had designed his machine to fly, so presumably the wooden wheels were set in parallel to achieve maximum stability on the runway. Corners posed a challenge. The first test was a sharp left turn that threatened to separate the engine from the fuselage. The pullers made it fine around the 90 degree corner, but the machine, its delicate net wings flapping wildly, began a maneuver that might eventually have squared the hypotenuse. Only by a brutal realignment of the rear wheels and some rearguard action was the vehicle saved from early disqualification.

 Now that the highway was straight and open, the pullers enthusiastically leaned into their ropes and raced away leaving me puffing along in their wake with flapping map and flag. By the time I caught up with them the field had thinned out and we were neck and neck with a lurid green caterpillar on a bicycle. At this point I was surprised to see that we had an escort. Leading the way was a policeman on a large white Harley Davidson with flashing blue lights.

Yay! With this official guide I could ditch the map and concentrate on steering.

As we approached the last corner cheering onlookers pointed the way.  I applied my new found knowledge of velocity and vectors and made a pretty good job of getting us lined up for the home stretch. Then abruptly a large white barrier loomed up ahead with a sign that said unequivocally, “ROAD CLOSED”

“Left!” I yelled and we screeched around the corner and galloped away from the competition. The gallop came to a full stop at the next intersection. Something was wrong. Looking back we saw a deserted street. No Harley, no caterpillar, no cheering onlookers. In fact, nothing at all. A quick consultation of the map indicated that the finish was frustratingly beyond the “Road closed” sign. After backtracking and a couple of turns around the block we trotted up to the finish line to take third place.


Mitch was philosophical about our modest success and immediately began planning for the next year. We drank a toast to 15th century technology.

The donkey was last seen digesting a good book...



Mitch will be racing his new sculpture this year in 2016 Cambridge Arts River Festival on Saturday, June 4th,  with a slightly younger crew (4th and 5th graders) pulling another sort of flying machine, This time it belongs to Aesop. Revels will also have a booth at the Festival.

Hope to see you there.