With a wingspan of almost 8 feet, the giant red and blue River Hawk was impossible to miss as it swooped through the University Crossing intersection and headed over the Howe Bridge toward North Campus on a recent Saturday afternoon.
As puzzled pedestrians and motorists stopped to snap photos, the trio of UMass Lowell students powering the colorful bird — Jacqui Gallant, Sarah Galevi and John Fedirko — kept pedaling their three-wheeled contraption, trying to keep pace with a larger-than-life lobster, a pirate ship and a bunch of bananas in the annual Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race.
Launched by visiting lecturer Michael Roundy and co-director Bianca Mauro in 2016, the community event is part parade, part road race and part celebration of the arts that merges the “STEAM” fields of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Teams of all ages from across the area — including the Rowdy River Rovers from the Art & Design Department — design, build and ride their kinetic sculptures, which are all-terrain, human-powered vehicles made from repurposed materials. The grueling 6-mile course, which begins and ends in downtown Lowell, takes participants over cobblestone streets, through a mud pit, up and down hills and into the Merrimack River.
“It’s just a fun day where you kind of lose yourself in the moment,” says Gallant, a junior art major from Billerica who has been part of the Rowdy River Rovers since her freshman year. “It’s a chance to smile and laugh at yourself.”
As the only returning team member this year, Gallant recruited Galevi, a fellow junior art major with a focus on animation from Tewksbury, to join her one week before the race. Galevi had written a research paper on the race last year and was eager to join.
“I love this stuff,” Galevi said during a midrace pitstop at Lowell Heritage State Park, where competitors refueled on brown-bag lunches and rested in the shade on the unseasonably hot 85-degree day.
“We need a little chaos in our life,” Galevi said as she surveyed the scene through her heart-shaped sunglasses: hundreds of spectators, competitors and race organizers dressed in tie-dye T-shirts, Elvis wigs and banana costumes lining up for food trucks, enjoying music and waiting for the river portion of the race to begin.
Fedirko, a senior sound recording technology major from Warren, volunteered to join Gallant and Galevi the night before the race when he saw them pushing the sculpture from its storage area in the South Campus Parking Garage through the streets of Lowell to the Market Street starting line.
“I thought people would be yelling, ‘Get out of the road!’ because it was during rush hour, but everybody was clapping for us,” Galevi says. “It was amazing. I felt alive.”
Since only two people are needed to pedal the Rowdy River Rover, the team members took turns trailing behind on a Free Wheelers bicycle during the race. They all hopped off and pushed in the “Maddening Mud Pit,” a 25-foot quagmire set up near the Tsongas Center.
“The first few seconds we really thought we were going to make it through, but then it just fell flat,” Galevi says. “It was rough, but we eventually made it.”
Originally built in collaboration with students from the Francis College of Engineering, the reusable kinetic sculpture features four empty 55-gallon drums (two on each side) for flotation. Gallant and Galevi sat on the barrels and paddled the craft during the river portion of the competition.
Among the spectators cheering them on from the banks of the Merrimack were Art & Design Department Chair Ellen Wetmore and Assoc. Prof. of English Bridget Marshall.
“This year’s race was fantastic, with some amazing entries,” says Marshall, who volunteered as a judge during last year’s event.
While the Rowdy River Rovers didn’t win this year’s race, they did take home the “Next to Last Award” and the “Very Competitive Non-competitive Award of Mediocrity” — just a couple of the tongue-in-cheek accolades that are part of the free-spirited event.
Following the “tremendously glorious day,” Roundy said he was thankful for the support he and Mauro continue to receive from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Before her graduation last spring, art major Ashley Brown ’19 worked as a graphic design intern for the event. Media Output & Digital Imaging Coordinator Steven Lessard also lent his expertise for the promotional materials.
“UMass Lowell is the heart and soul of this city, and we love partnering with them for the race,” Mauro says.
“We seem to have really hit our stride this year with fundraising and organizing,” says Roundy, who hopes to see mechanical engineering students team up with the art students once again in future races.
The Rowdy River Rovers would like to see that, too.
“We’ve been making little tweaks each year and fixing whatever breaks, but it would be cool to connect with the Engineering Department next year and bring North and South campuses together,” Gallant says.
Adds Fedirko, “Maybe we can get some of the CrossFit people from the Campus Recreation Center to help, too.”