Are you ready to rumble? Maybe not in a horse-powered car, but the Kingston Soapbox Derby will have your heart racing as all-star soapbox cars whiz down the Rondout hill. Kingston’s annual Soapbox Derby is a celebration of artists spanning the spectrum of expression, bringing out the most vibrant and lucid creations from young and old. With new mechanical machines cruising down Rondout Hill, a piece of history replays itself and comes back fresh in ingenuity and cultural awareness, ready for 21st century acknowledgment and a new critical lens.

Felix Olivieri, Lace Mill artist resident and soapbox contestant, gears up for this event weeks in advance. His commitment to soapbox dates back to its inception 22 years ago. He’s proudly raced cars reminiscent of DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” a “Futurama” ship, and his own version of a hot rod that “shot confetti from the back.” Though his past creations were anything but ordinary, this year, he wanted to do something extra special, honoring this year’s theme “Tributes.”

“One of the things I noticed is there is a lot of people from the City up here…so I thought, ‘let me do a subway train.’ The joke behind it: everyone from the City commutes and eventually comes up here.”

RUPCO graffitti subway car by Felix Olivieri

Photo: Joan Horton

While the NYC commute stirs something—maybe a headache—in many, a deeper connection circles back to the art world in local Kingston. Olivieri grew up in the Bronx. He remembers the incredible images sprayed onto sides of buildings and on trains rushing past his line of vision when he would venture out to see new artistry work. “For me, that would have been my first gallery show—the subway trains—passing by and seeing the different styles people do.”

Most of the graffiti he saw “would only last a day or two because at the time, the mayor in office would demand cleaning up all the subways and trains. And there was this whole big thing about what is art, and to us—to younger people— it was urban art, but to them, it was destroying NYC.”

As a former art store owner, Olivieri sought to keep the spirit of urban artists alive. Oddly, it wasn’t the younger generations that would ask so much about the store’s graffiti section. Instead, people in their 50’s and 60’s wanted to take graffiti classes and learn the street art techniques. Though the classes never ran, Olivieri was struck by the fascination that older generations had for a commonly youth-stigmatized art form.

Graffiti has gained a following and is more acceptable across business and political districts now. Kingston may be a leader in graffiti experimentation, since a stroll around the city lends a viewing of dynamic modern art visuals. “Kingston has become very open to the idea of the graffiti style and it being used as ‘beautification’ rather than destroying artwork the next day. Many of those old-style graffiti artists are part of the community and they don’t have create it in secrecy.”

Illicit graffiti entails legal issues, and therefore acceptance of it is hard-won. On Olivieri’s soapbox this year, Lace Mill residents help promote awareness of artistic expression by signing their names on his soapbox subway car in graffiti-like fashion, paying tribute to the oft-stereotyped craft. Broadway Arts is giving a hand in creating some alternate styles of graffiti on the sides of his soapbox, mixing in their vision with others, too. Click here for a Facebook video of Felix strutting down Broadway with the K Train (video courtesy of Leonie Grande).

Frank Waters, fellow Lace Mill artist-resident, helped Olivieri by dabbling in the painting process. Inspired to start a soapbox for My Kingston Kids, he pulled together supplies and pieced together one in which young hands decorated. Ultimately, the “Pirates of Kingston” boat will make an encore appearance in Kingston’s Halloween Fest. (This year’s Halloween theme is “Pirates of Kingston.”) My Kingston Kids is a youth program that focuses on “children’s events and activities to encourage children to enjoy themselves through fun and educating ways,” says Waters.

When Derby Day arrived, kids cheered on soapbox contestants, the younger crowd making up a large part of the 2000+ audience that usually attends The Kingston Soapbox Derby every year. Some  soapboxes rolled in laughs and catered to young imaginations. Others were made for alternative competitions. Wackier pieces from previous years include a giant toaster, two girls seated playing cards on two toilets, and a giant metal dragon made of wrenches welded together shot that fire.

This year’s Soapbox Derby – held on Sunday, August 20, 2017 – recognized the following creations with awards:

  • People’s Choice award went to: A Tribute to Gene Wilder & Willy Wonka by Possibility Studios; built by Martin Elting, Julia Pierce, Tom Harvey, Cole Elting, Tom Henning, and Kathy Hughe.
  • Kids First Place went to: Police Truck by Alexander and Mom’s.
  • Tributes award went to Horticultural Horrors by Kevin Muth and Marker Snyder.

Congrats to all ~ we hope to see you next year!