SF State professor and students compete in SFMOMA’s first Soapbox Derby in over 40 years
SF State Art Professor Michael Arcega and students from his Sculpture and Expanded Practice class created a Frankenstein-inspired soapbox for the race
April 12, 2022
Maskless smiling faces decked out in sunglasses and hats filled the surrounding grassy area of John F. Shelley Drive, the designated race track. The sound of cheering and clapping trickled down from the starting line at the top of the hill to the finish line. Anxiety animated the crowd as they waited for the next motorless vehicle — what’s known as a soapbox — to race down the steep drive.
San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art brought back its Soapbox Derby in McLaren Park after 44 years and attracted over 4,000 attendees, at a time when San Francisco has its least restrictive COVID safety measures but highest cases in the state. It was evident that people were ready to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
“I’m not sure if it’s the Soapbox Derby that’s really popular,” SF State School of Art Associate Professor Michael Arcega said. “I think we’re ready to do something collectively, come out of this feeling of being cloistered and apart from each other.”
Over 100 artists contributed to the making of this event, with 57 entries of different soapboxes, some shaped like carrots, eyeballs and school supplies. Arcega and students from his Sculpture and Expanded Practice class were among the artists that built a car.
“This is a great way to kind of come together in community in this very beautiful day in this amazing park, to look at art and art that is both socially engaged and be collaborative. We need it,” Arcega said.
SFMOMA held its first and only two Soapbox Derby events in 1975 and 1978, supporting over 200 artists between the two races by commissioning them to create cars and trophies.
Arcega heard of the 1975 event about a decade ago and uses it as a teaching foundation for ways students could make art in the community and collaboratively.
“It really is a really innovative way to run a class where everybody is collaborating on a single goal,” Arcega said. “They’re very spirited art students with very healthy imaginations and it’s fun and challenging but it pushes everybody.”
Arcega told his students at the beginning of the semester that creating a soapbox for the derby would be the main class project for the semester, and if the students weren’t interested then they should consider dropping the class.
All of the students ended up sticking with the class and contributed to the Soapbox through multiple mediums from woodworking and metalworking, to budgeting and organizing.
“I feel like it really helped in the process of understanding how to work around each other, and come to like an agreement at the end,” Arcega’s student Kevin Lopez said. “It was just cool to have all those different types of traits accumulate into one thing.”
The class built an upside-down head for their soapbox named “Mary’s Monster,” which was inspired by Mary Shelley’s first edition of Frankenstein. Black and silver material made up the hair, patches of different shades of blue for the face and eyes as the wheels.
Through Recology San Francisco’s Artist in Residence program, Arcega and his students were able to make 80% of their soapbox with reclaimed and used materials. Most of it came from landfill; the second-hand go-kart and the nose of the face was made from a copper sink.
Arcega was nominated by SFMOMA’s Manager of Community Engagement Stella Lochman, an SF State alumna. Lochman led the effort to bring back SFMOMA’s iconic Soapbox Derby.
“So I have a little soft spot for SF State, obviously, but I had worked with Mike in a different capacity,” Lochman said. “So knowing that Mike was the sculpture professor and also into cars, he was the name that I actually put on the list. He’s fabulous. I adore him.”
She’s worked for about a year to put the derby together, reaching out to local artists and the community that made the first two derbies happen.
Most of the artists were invited to participate in the Soapbox by the museum and only 11 spots were reserved for open call.
“We did an Instagram push out and got actually over 100 entries,” Lochman said. “That’s the hardest thing about this was choosing the open called cars. I didn’t expect to be able to ask people to participate, to do such a momentous thing.”
The judges selected racers for a pool of 36 accolades such as “Least Serious,” “Best of the Worst” and “Car That Looks the Worst After Crashing Before Halfway Down the Track.” The trophies were also donated by artists.
Arcega and his students took home the “Funkiest” award for their soapbox.
“I haven’t really thought about which award we would like,” Arcega said after their turn on the track. ”I think doing a successful piece like this is really — I mean, not to be corny — but I think it’s rewarding already. So, a beautiful day like this, it’s great. I’m happy.”