Twist of the Wrist

Finding the connection between motorcycles and art

Aug 5, 2009 at 5:00 am
Twist of the Wrist
Photo by Ron Jasin

For the first 10 seconds you are plugging along, taking in the hills rolling alongside you while the sun plays tricks on your eyes through the clear plastic shield on your helmet, and the low rumble of the engine as it winds through third gear begins to fade. The wind takes over, whipping your head around as you strain your neck parallel with the open stretch of blacktop ahead. You squeeze the clutch and feel your left foot nudge the bike into fourth gear and the tach hits 4500 rpm. Maybe you check the speedometer: 50, 60; the needle bounces somewhere in between. There is a light sting on your back as your shirt snaps around on itself. At some point you remember you are mounted atop a blazing engine; your blue jeans seem trite and ridiculous. Two violently rotating bits of rubber, about the diameter of a tennis ball, are all that connect you to the road.

You jam the thing into fifth and twist your wrist again, rolling back on the throttle. There is a certain glee to 80 mph, but you are calm. A clarity of vision. Every conscious thought fades into the background. At 90 you consider the high mark on your speedometer: 140. All exterior forces try to tear you from your perch. You lean forward, feeling the gush of air down your back. At this point you think of your own mechanical acumen. You recall tightening the lugs on your back wheel after you adjusted the chain 30 minutes ago, confirming their position with a final hard pull. Was it enough?

The bike gives a low groan as it pulls toward 100 mph.

Brakes. Is your foot in position? You remind yourself not to grab at the handle on your right hand: a firm, properly timed squeeze will do. Ease it toward your body. Any sudden movement and your next meal is coming through a feeding tube, while doctors politely discuss where to graft skin from your torn, road-rashed body. If you’re lucky, something will be salvageable.

This is what Brad White warned me about a few months ago, when I bought a 1977 Yamaha XS650 and became addicted to acceleration in its most concentrated form. Restraint, he counseled. Remember your limitations. It’s easy to fly when you’re sitting on a rocket.

The Louisville artist and sculptor grew up racing dirt bikes; when he was 4 years old he had a 1971 50cc Indian with a 50-foot towrope affixed to it. The rope was knotted to a kill switch, so his brother could shut off the engine if White was burning headlong like Napoleon at Waterloo into a tunnel-vision calamity.

White is curator of “Twist of the Wrist,” a one-night-only exhibition of motorcycle-inspired art that opens (and closes) Friday at the Arctic Ice Building on East Main Street. The show — one part tribute to motorcycles and the art they inspire, another part community event for the one-percenters — features 19 Louisville artists and is the first of its kind in the city. It will coincide with the recent exhibition “The Wind in Your Hair,” an impressive collection of vintage motorcycles and photographs at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, and the eighth annual Kentucky Art Car Weekend.

As he helped assemble the KMAC show several months ago, White says it occurred to him how many of the city’s visual artists are also motorcyclists.

“This show made itself,” he says. “I really appreciate the work from everybody in this show and I cannot wait to see it.”

That’s the funny thing: Last week, as I was preparing to interview White and some of the other artists, I asked him to send over images of the work. But he had nothing, not a single one; many of the artists are bringing new, theme-specific work. It was 10 days before the show.

I want to talk to White about the connections between motorcycles and art, because there seem to be many. This turns out to be a squirrelly topic. He says some bikes are works of art, and he calls motorcyclists and artists “B-side people,” which I buy completely. White grew up in this culture; listening to him go on about motorcycles over a beer is like watching your favorite band hit all the right notes during a particularly energetic show. It’s musical.

But we don’t arrive at any sort of conclusion.

Sarah Lyon's boots are made of bronze.

About 30,000 miles ago, the Louisville artist picked up a cheap pair of black leather harness boots on a west coast trip. She wore them out — two sole replacements, a tear on the top of the right foot — before she decided they’d hit retirement age.

The boots were on her feet for three cross-country trips, during which she made the well known Female Mechanics Calendars, a collection of portraits that Lyon says is as much about empowerment as engines. She cast the boots in bronze and documented the process in a ring-bound flipbook.

They’re sitting on her diner-style kitchen table as we chat. The boots are a striking presence: dark, heavy and quite realistic. When I ask about the connection between motorcycles and art, trying to get at whether there is a direct line or it’s all just a bunch of romanticized hubbub, she points to them.

“These, which are sitting right here, are motorcycle art,” Lyon says, and we both laugh.

I ask her about the calendars, which people tend to consider some form of motorcycle-inspired art — maybe because she made them while tooling around America’s coasts and the in-between, first on a ’78 Yamaha XS750 and then a ’77 BMW R100S, a burnt-orange 1,000cc beast with a front fairing that looks like it could take out a moose.

As she toured the country meeting female mechanics and developing a network — she is also a mechanic — Lyon had the idea to flip the traditional pinup calendar on its head. Instead of showing half-bare blondes and brunettes in sexually suggestive poses, she would show women working in their element, whether that’s in a garage or on a tug boat. But she kept the nomenclature of the standard-fare eye-candy calendar: There are centerfolds.

Lyon says the calendars aren’t about motorcycles at all (not all the women featured are motorcycle mechanics). Rather, they’re a feminist comment on self-sufficiency and empowerment, one that doesn’t lead with the aesthetic but also doesn’t necessarily ignore it: Lyon’s portraits are intricate, beautiful, energetic and very much alive.

The motorcycle gave Lyon a way into the profiles; she says her subjects tended to trust her quicker because she is an established mechanic and photographer, which made for more candid pieces. But the motorcycle journey was more corollary than hardwired to the hundreds of rolls of film the Louisville native came home with.

This idea of a connection between pop art and motorcycles is a little cold and nebulous. There are the cliches: At the root, both are about individuality, independence and freedom of expression. Every rider I’ve ever met has had something to say about the power of being alone, how riding bolsters the human spirit in ways only the initiated can grasp. When you ask an artist why he or she paints or takes photographs or sculpts forms of clay and limestone and bronze, you will likely be able to follow this same line somewhere in the answer.

The classic image of a motorcyclist is outlaw, renegade and quintessentially outsider — the one-percenter. They look for truth on the fringes, find where the weirdness lies and tap into it until the vein bleeds out. Some, like those noted in countless profiles of biker gangs, are menacing to outwardly normal folk — one percent of the one-percenters. They impose and intimidate, try or not. This is a romanticized vision, to be sure: There are plenty of Harley riders out there in Tommy Bahama shirts who just like to screw it on every so often. But to a square, the world of chrome and grease seems like a place where the cost of admission is uncomfortably high.

Art can be this way. Stare at a Picasso long enough and you’re bound to either fall away with fear or start spouting gibberish about the deeper meanings of a counter-clockwise brushstroke. Take an art history class and you may find yourself lusting to destroy anything labeled “fine.”

Patrick Jilbert makes pop art. His lines are awkward and his subject matter often fantastical. His paintings and drawings show outsized monsters with boxy frames engaging in normal things: lounging, standing there staring at you as if awaiting your reply. He riffs on pop culture: a stolen lyric or a phrase he hears repeated.

Jilbert, whose painting of a motorcycle was in process when I visited his east Louisville garage studio last week (he says a monster will probably wind up atop it), says he doesn’t seek profundity with his work.

“A vast majority of the time I don’t have some deeper meaning toward things,” he says. “It just is what it is. I like making art for what it is.”

He says the connection between motorcycles and art might be a little easier than what I’ve been looking for. “The whole individuality thing of it,” he says. “That’s why I got into bikes. Especially vintage bikes.”

The first thing Jilbert did when he picked up his ’68 Honda CL350 was strip the tank and clear-coat it, giving it a clean, old-school brushed-metal look. That’s the thing about vintage bikes, which are popular among younger riders: Along with being inexpensive and relatively easy to fix, they’re customizable. A couple simple tweaks and your bike is totally personalized — maybe even a work of art.

It’s what Brad White was talking about.

“For me a lot of it is visual,” White says. “There’s such a grace when it’s done right.”

Graceful is probably not the appropriate adjective for Scott Scarboro’s “Twist of the Wrist” piece. Magical might be apropos.

The junkabilly, who uses found, donated and recycled objects as fodder for his art, is about midway through building his own motorcycle when I stop by his New Albany home for a peek. It’s more a whizzer than a bona fide road warrior, a throwback to the days when strapping an engine to a bicycle seemed like as good an idea for motorization as anything.

“This is probably the most excitement I’ve had in a while as far as art projects,” Scarboro says.

He’s sitting on the concrete sidewalk in his backyard, assessing the 7-foot frame before him: an extended bicycle of sorts, the product of three separate bicycles donated to him for a recently finished public-art bike rack (now at Fourth and Broadway). The main rig is a blue Sears cruiser, god knows how old, which he cut in half. He welded other frame parts together for extension, and is tweaking the motor mount, on which will sit a two-horsepower engine he found on Craigslist for $10. It used to power an edger.

Scarboro is using a basic motorcycle design for inspiration; where the tank would be he’ll put a solar panel to power the lights. He says he’ll probably use a thumb throttle, although a lever — like those on the earliest motorcycles — would be ideal.

His intent is not just to create something that looks cool, although it most assuredly will; Scarboro wants to be able to ride this thing. It’s a kind of functional art.

“I think it’s the bare bones of it,” Scarboro says when I ask him, not a rider, what’s so attractive about motorcycles. “Especially making one from scratch, I really get a sense of the mechanics of it. It’s almost like a living organism, where you can get a sense of the muscle, the bone. You can see the action and reaction of the parts and pieces.”

We talk about the vintage motorcycles in the KMAC show, most of which aren’t just torqued-up road animals, but graceful specimens of mechanical ingenuity.

“These things were made to be functional, but there was some incredible sense of design, too,” he says.

Looking for a surface connection in the aesthetics here is superfluous. In a local art scene where balkanization finally seems to be giving way to a greater sense of shared purpose, at least in some regards, perhaps a more classicist idea of the culture of community is where motorcycles and art shall meet. (Those offended by the sappiness of this idea are advised to go make some friends.)

Like war veterans, cancer survivors and recovering alcoholics, motorcyclists — from Harley guys to BSA junkies to lanky dweebs like me — have an ingrained connection based on similar, if not always shared, experience. You’ll notice this when you’re driving behind one and another passes in the opposite lane. Most bikers will drop the left hand to about seat-height and signal with a couple fingers. It’s like that Jeep thing, and now you understand.

“The family that it creates is unreal,” says Joe Phillips, who rides a ’67 BSA Thunderbolt. “It’s automatic family.”

Phillips, a 36-year-old native of Los Angeles, started Louisville Vintage Motorworks as a Facebook group in February (now there’s, a forum and indispensable resource for the local vintage rider, as well). As of Monday, there were 312 members of the Facebook group.

There were 35 bikes at LouVin’s first meeting, and the group has since grown. You’ll find them at the hip Germantown dine-and-brew spot Swan Dive every Wednesday evening, and one Sunday a month at Nachbar (the latter being more of a show party while the former usually includes a short ride and lots of highly specific motorcycle chatter).

“There was always one degree of separation [among Louisville riders],” Phillips says. “Everybody saw each other around but there was never a reason to meet.”

LouVin’s rapid growth suggests something is at play here that’s a little deeper than your standard fashion show. Maybe it has everything to do with motorcycles, which have everything to do with art, which has everything to do with the way we relate to the people around us, perceive the world at large and begin to attempt some understanding of the overwhelming amount of information available at any given second.

There is also the fact that a well-maintained vintage bike just looks cool, and that alone is usually enough of a draw. The good ones wail cool through the tailpipes. 

‘Twist of the Wrist:

Louisville Art on Motorcycle Culture’

Friday, Aug. 7

Arctic Ice House

217 E. Main St.

Free; 5 p.m.-Midnight


Featuring works by:

Scott Scarboro

Sarah Lyon

Raymond Graf



Joe Welsh

Ron Jasin

Patrick Jilbert

John King

Joel Pinkerton

Daniel Pfalzgraf

Melissa Pinn

Frankie Steele

John Wurth

Scott Shuffitt

Jeff Gaither

Moe Profane

Natasha Sud

Michael Fulkerson

Brad White