The Crazy Art of Getting Downhill – The Hartford Art Sled Derby

by Laurencia Ciprus / Photos by Sue Fenton 

What’s heaps funner – and much, much safer – than racing cafeteria trays downhill, straight into traffic? (Yeah…we know…you tried it once). The answer:  the 6th Annual Hartford Art Sled Derby! The 2018 installment of the Capitol City’s annual technicolor extravaganza of absurdity, fun, and amazement will be back again at Elizabeth Park’s Hartford Overlook on Saturday, February 10th from 11-2 PM.  Rewind back to the beginning: Organizer Paul Spirito was ice skating with talented pal, Anne Cubberly – the Connecticut Art Goddess and Night Fall creative powerhouse. Outdoors in the snow, ice, and winter, the abstract conversation naturally turned to the Minneapolis Powderhorn Park Art Sled Rally. Mix artists and ideas and cold thin air, and they got instantly excited with lots of ‘how great could it be’ and ‘let’s do this in Hartford.’ The event is a simple plan that gets better and better: just take anything that will slide down the hill; transform it into a fast, fancy, and foolish moving piece of sculptural art and invite the entire community to come! They did and continue to do so.

Back to Paul: he was so excited with the Minneapolis model that he jumped in feet first to replicate it in Hartford and became the event’s official organizer. What began as a “what if” conversation, morphed and naturally expanded over six years from grassroots to a full-on annual community event. Spirito sees the Art Derby as more of a parade than a race, and everyone and anyone can participate. “It has an organic nature.” You just show up at the park with your most tricked out, fantastical downhill contraption and pray to the gods for heaps and heaps of snow. So far, the weather has cooperated; and what started with 100 people and 12 sleds the first year, now draws a crowd of over 300 with 36 sleds and counting. Impressive, with pretty much only the FB page as the PR component. To date, this year’s Facebook count has logged in 3000 interested followers. The event is a beautiful, easy thing which successfully unites the diverse neighborhoods sprawled out across the city. It also coaxes kids and families to spend a Saturday together creating something magical and playing outdoors without much more than an imagination.

The sleds range in size and from the absurd to the insane, the brilliantly hilarious to the ambitious. “Folks usually get invested and come back each year – especially the families. You can watch the kids grow up and their sleds advance and get more and more creative. One little girl started out with all her stuffed animals aboard her sled, and now she adds a few more details each year. There was also this family who did a whole Star Wars series with a Millennium Falcon heading the pack. And…there was the downhill recliner, a massive pirate ship, bedsled, a dragster, and even a downhill outhouse!  There are also trophies for…well, just about anything the most irreverent judges come up with on the fly: Pinkest Sled, Fastest Bathtub, Best Crash, etc.

Paul Spirito is the ideal fit as the ringmaster of this event, equipped with boundless imagination and an undergrad degree in Product Design. He spent ten years as a toy designer with a stint at Coleco – remember Cabbage Patch Kids? – and concocts the prizes by hand from donated trophies upcycled and embellished with knickknacks, feathers, and gewgaws. (One of the most important details on the trophies is the white gaffers tape for the last minute award titles inscribed in Sharpie).

Spirito shifted gears and developed a background in puppetry with an MFA from the UCONN Program – the only university in the country which offers a degree in the art form. It’s all irreverently unofficial, with NPR’s Chion Wolf; L.B. Munoz from The Republic Restaurant, and NightFall’s Anne Cubberly regularly judging, and the iconic Chion doubling as announcer at the award ceremony. Spirito defines puppetry as “an object that is performed,” and these downhill pieces of performance art definitely fit the description.

Things have gotten a bit more organized after the first year and maybe a little more complicated and – with growing success – trickier. The City of Hartford stepped up in year three when the Mayor’s office noticed the crowd increasing in the park and then insisted on permits, Porta Potties, and insurance. The once little event had grown up and become an institution! Hartford government pulled aside some red tape and helped out with grants. By 2017 a Kickstarter initiative was in place for the year and funded the entire event in less than a week. This year -2018 – has proven even more fruitful, with people from all corners of the community stepping up to provide the necessary funding. Spirito adds, “This is a small, tight knit, and supportive arts community. Everyone gets involved when something needs doing. They love this event and want to keep it alive and well.”

There have been improvements added each successive year. There is now live music. The  marching band, Hartford Hot Several, led by Josh Mitchum, has added an uber-cool musical component to the event, with Chion Wolf on drums. (What can’t she do)? Mitchum likes to mix Hip Hop with New Orleans Jazz; and the band opens the event, plays full-on during the judging, and at the finish. Also, sets of traffic cones are set in place down the hill – 20 feet apart – to keep the crowds from colliding with the speeding sleds. Spirito smirks, “It’s a great effort, but as the momentum builds throughout the morning and everyone gets into the spirit, the cones mysteriously begin to creep closer.” There are sleds representing community groups who regularly participate, including Hartford Roller Derby, Make Hartford, and a virtual sled from Sea Tea Improv, which the team members describes as the crowd imagines it moving downhill.

There have been some funny moments says the organizer. “There was this guy who was insisting on sending his new baby daughter – like weeks old – down the hill on his young daughter’s lap. There was a discussion, and the crowd totally vetoed the idea. The biggest voodoo is the snow factor. Spirito is absolutely certain that there will be plenty of the white stuff for the event, and his positive attitude hasn’t failed him yet. Weather has not foiled the Art Sled Derby to date.“I remember the 2016 Derby. We woke up to below zero temperatures, and there was an Arctic blast that swept in. Would it be too cold? Never…it’s Derby Day! By the time the sleds lined up at the top of the hill, the weather broke, and the sun came out to warm things up. Someone up there always likes us…without fail!”

Aside from the benefits of unedited creativity and fun for all ages, Sprito cannot emphasize the vast enrichment benefit the Hartford Art Sled Derby gives back to the city. “This initiative is a major driver in promoting creativity throughout Hartford neighborhoods, and the best part – the very best part – is the openness of the event. Everyone can make and bring whatever they want  and experience the day in their own way. The kids continue to be so great, and it is a simple way to bring Hartford folks and people from surrounding towns together.” Is there a future wish list? “It would be amazing to coax in the food trucks from across the city. There is always room to add on to the event – little-by-little each year.”

“The 2018 Hartford Art Sled Derby is Saturday, February 10th from 11 – 2PM at the Hartford Overlook at Elizabeth Park. Enter on the corner of Asylum Avenue and Prospect Avenue. Find them on their Facebook Page: Hartford Art Sled Derby.