An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
Comments welcome!

Monday, December 19, 2016

But is it Art?

On the average, most people likely don't think of a bicycle as an artistic object. In fact, for most people, it probably doesn't even fall into the category of craft. The idea that the bicycle must be "made". By some one. The fact that most bicycles are manufactured by large companies, a production line from a faceless offshore machine that arrive by some means into our hands renders it into a commodity.

But there is that subset, small as it may be, of bike-like objects that are produced by people, small companies, possibly even one-person operations, making in the numbers from small runs to one-off customs.

A recent thread on one of the forums I frequent explored the idea of whether bike making is a craft or an art, whether one who makes bikes is an artist or a craftsman (or craftsperson, as I know of at least a few women who share the trade). I found it to be an interesting question, not one that can be answered in just a few words. And so I thought it might make a good topic to explore.

I "hang out" with several custom (or some call it "made to measure") bicycle frame builders, using media from aluminum, steel, titanium, carbon fiber, and even wood.  Construction methods vary. Some use the trade as their sole means of support, some are hobbyists who build a few bikes a year, some dabble in the craft for their own purposes.

Sure, it's an online community where several discussions are playing out simultaneously over extended periods. The topics are generally explored in depth, with many of the best builders in the industry lending their expertise and extensive experience.

If it's useful, it's craft. If it isn't, it's art.

One person on the discussion thread quoted one of their mentors, using that line. I don't think I agree with it, however.

Almost universally, framebuilders recognize their wares as tools first. A bike is, at its core, a means to propel a human from one place to another under their own power. The variables of rider size (and weight), strength, body position, weight balance, and terrain inform the design of the final product. The design must first satisfy its core purpose and support the above parameters, and do so ably with endurance.

So there's this useful object made by someone... That would make it a craft. But is it, or can it be, art?

In order to make art, you must first master the craft.

There is an entire cultural line of thinking in Japan, usually in very traditional things, which makes mastering something the art itself. Ceramic pottery, shooting an arrow at a target from the back of a galloping horse, even serving tea. In mastering the craft or the activity, it becomes art. HOW something is done is the art, and in that art, the finished product approaches perfection.
Some raw braze work by Steve Garro,
copied from his Smoked Out thread
on Velocipede Salon

My particular method in framebuilding is fillet brazing. Meaning I heat up the steel tubes to a certain point and melt in bronze such that it glues the tubes together with a little concave fillet around the joint. The better the skill, the smoother that joint is after it cools. It is normal to file and sand these joints smooth and even afterwards to provide an organic transition from one tube to another. There are a very few builders, Eric Estland of Winter Bicycles and Steve Garro of Coconino to name two, whose skill in laying bronze is such that I would pay extra for them to leave the joint raw -- no filing or sanding after. My skill isn't there, yet. But those two, I feel, have elevated the craft to art. It's not that watching them DO is so elegant, but the final product is.

Art inspires... something.

Maybe the answer lies in psychologist's ever-angering question: How does that make you feel? (*It makes me feel like I want to punch you in the face.*)

Uh, yeah, so moving on, maybe what makes something art is that it inspires something, makes the viewer feel something. It's meant to reach inside the viewer and stir some emotion. With a bicycle, I imagine it takes a certain level of two-wheeled obsession to see it as something more than a tool (and to a large -- by more than one definition of that word --  percentage of the population, more than a toy). And probably even more of a bike nut to actually "feel" something. Likely the bike frame builder isn't looking for the rider to get all teary-eyed. Seeing a smile or two is enough. Anything more tends to get a little embarrassing. The real inspiration sought is that the rider wants to do exactly that -- ride the bike.

This is ART, man!

In 2015, I was exhibiting my bikes at the Oregon Handmade Bike and Beer festival. Part of my display was my personal "gravel" bike, with my young daughter's kick bike leaned up against it. Matching paint schemes and graphics. It was an attention-getter, to be sure, even though I wouldn't consider either one to be my best work. Many smiles, some conversations started. Towards the end of Saturday evening, a gentleman came by as the crowds were dwindling. He walked with the aid of crutches, carried a backpack.

He stopped at these two bikes, and I could hear his breath catch a bit. He lingered. Then he leaned over to me, with tears in his eyes.

"I'm really tight with the local artist community around here, and, well, I admit that I've had a few of these (gesturing with his mostly-empty pint glass), but I've got to tell you, this is just ART, man." It was apparent that seeing those two bikes together, so obviously a parent/child thing, made him feel something. Yeah, most likely aided by the I-love-you-man level of inebriation. It wasn't my intention to make art, but apparently I backed into it, at least in this gentleman's view.

Most people won't experience the art of a particular bike

The bikes I make aren't adorned with any extra flourishes. No intricate lugwork or flashy stainless steel logos. I may use a stainless steel part here and there, but that is for the purposes of corrosion protection, not appearances. The bike frames I make are built to suit a particular rider, with the ride feel they desire on the intended surfaces. Even within the cycling-enthusiast subset of the population, the only person who will really experience how that comes out is the person for whom the bike was made. It's not going to fit some one else exactly right, and that person might have a different idea of how a bike should respond to input.

My art, if I were to categorize any of it as such, is hitting that target perfectly -- the bike that fits that one rider with no compromises, and responds to that person's weight shifts and steering inputs as if it were wired directly to their subconscious brain.

Because I want that person to ride their bike.

Is it art?

Ask the rider.