Mud, glitter, and glory: the 2015 Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby

Derby stalwart Joel Spivak rides the mud pit in his signature yellow.

Before I moved to Philadelphia, a friend here told me about an event where people rode these huge crazy bicycle things while wearing ridiculous costumes, and then they fell into a mud pit. She struggled to find the words to accurately describe the scene and the excitement surrounding it. Only later did I learn that she’d been talking about the Philly-famous Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. (This year, it’s officially called the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby & Arts Festival, incorporating both the derby and the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival.)

Celebrating 10 years

This year’s May 16 event marks ten years of whimsical, human-powered vehicles parading through the streets. Participants put their engineering and artistic skills to the test to create their sculptures and costumes, often modifying their own bikes and repurposing found objects. They ride along the commercial corridors of Kensington and Fishtown — this time in a figure-eight along the longest route yet — and navigate obstacles like a wash station and, of course, the mud pit.

More than 15,000 people attended the Derby of 2014, with an even higher turnout expected this year. “For a long time, the Derby was a Fishtown-Kensington event, but it started growing to become a Philadelphia event,” said Karina Ambartsoumian of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, which organizes the Derby along with the East Kensington Neighbors Association.

“Derby day is like Christmas,” said Joel Spivak, an architect, South Philly resident, and soon to be seven-time kinetic sculpture pilot. Every year, he works to alter his bike in order to make a simple sculpture that incorporates his signature color, yellow. Spivak was the first-ever Derby applicant and is one of many enthusiastic participants who return each year. It’s tradition for him to go first in the Derby, and he allows people to ride alongside him.

Beyond Kensington

Although Spivak is an independent rider, most participants tend to work in teams, like Steph Davis and Dana Pavlichko, artists from Kensington and South Philly, respectively. The 2015 Derby will be the team’s fourth, but the first time without their usual third teammate, Claire Folkman. The team has a reputation for glittery, elaborate costumes they consider to be sculptural elements. “My favorite part of the derby is having a long-term creative outlet each year outside of our normal work,” Pavlichko said.

Pavlichko and Davis led a mask-making and costuming workshop as part of a series of pre-Derby workshops all around Philadelphia. The workshops were part of an effort this year to expand the Derby’s reach beyond the neighborhood, including involving more kids through a kid-friendly mini Derby complete with masks and a mud pit. The Derby wouldn’t be what it is without so many different kinds of people excited to come together: longtime Philadelphians and newcomers alike, partiers outside their homes and those who trek from other neighborhoods, and those both delighted by and terrified of the kinetic sculptures.

The real triumph

And although there are prizes awarded in a variety of categories — from Best Costume to Best Breakdown — the real triumph is the community feel, camaraderie, and celebratory nature of the Derby. “I feed off the spectacular energy of the crowd,” Spivak said.

For Davis and Pavlichko, the glory of wearing their fabulous costumes is a victory itself. “Getting reactions from kids and spectators is rewarding,” said Davis.

The Derby provides an opportunity for people to create, collaborate, have fun, dress up, and expect the unexpected. The kinetic sculptures will be revealed on Saturday, May 16 at noon at Trenton Avenue and Norris Streets in East Kensington.

If you’re intrigued, it’s not too late to sign up as a participant. According to Ambartsoumian, no one knows how many riders to expect until the day of the Derby, as registrations come in right up to that morning. “In the spirit of the Derby, it comes together,” she said.

At right: Steph Davis, Dana Pavlichko, and Claire Folkman ride in a previous Derby.