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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2014

The Art of Cycling Revisited

Eight years ago, in June, 2006, I cranked out a column in this space called the Art of Cycling. (Eight years ago? Holy cow, where has the time gone?) Seeing as how this is a return to that theme, you might want to go back to that old copy and slog through it, either again or for the first time.

The basic premise is simple: that our bike rides can be enriched by occasional encounters with art…that the sculptures are out there, in dozens, if not hundreds, of outdoor, roadside installations, just waiting for us to ride by and visit with them. We take it as an article of faith that cyclists are more likely to notice all sorts of roadside divertimenti; more likely, that is, than folks in their hermetically sealed autoboxes. This may be a stretch, but I'm going for it anyway: not only are cyclists more likely to notice art--along with everything else out there--simply by virtue of going more slowly and looking around as they toodle along, but they are also more likely to appreciate the art that they notice…to get some charge out of it. I base this on my entirely subjective and biased notion that cyclists are operating on a slightly more energized and elevated plane than the folks in the cars. They're more alive and in the moment…more awake to whatever is on offer, be it blue skies or babbling brooks or monumental sculpture.

I'll concede the point that there are some cyclists who have a serious case of tunnel vision: who care not a whit for the world around them. They're in full-tilt training mode. Their heads are down and they're fully focused on going fast and crunching the numbers on their Garmins. Nothing is going to distract them…certainly not anything as frivolous as Art. But I believe that branch of the cycling tree is a small, stunted growth; that most of the community of cyclists, be they hammers or dawdlers or anywhere in between, will have a little bandwidth to spare for taking in the passing scene, especially if the passing scene includes something out of the every day ordinary, such as Art.

So anyway…that's my story and I'm sticking to it. The art is out there, and it's our job to find it and enjoy it. Fortunately, that job is becoming easier and more rewarding as the years go by, because, what with a grant here and a fund there, and a creative effort over there, art keeps popping up all over the landscape, often in places where we might least expect it.

CycliskTake, for one delightful example, a piece called Cyclisk. This is a 60'-high, Egyptian-style obelisk fabricated out of recycled bicycle frames and rims and parts. It sits on a little triangular patch of land alongside busy Santa Rosa Avenue, next to a Nissan dealership. That's not exactly a bike-friendly environment, so not a spot you would be likely to ride past on any regular ride you might do. You have to plan to go see it (on a bike) and figure out a fun way to get there. It can be done, if you like urban meanderings (I do).

It was funded by a partnership between the city and the car dealership as part of the general plan's directive to add art to the city-scape. The city rather optimistically spins its gritty urban setting as a gateway to the so-called Downtown Arts District, within a few blocks of other big sculptures, parks, the Luther Burbank gardens, etc. You can read more about it here. (And while you're at that SR City site, take a minute to look at all the other public art installations there are around the town…then seek them out on a ride.)

I attended the dedication when it was installed, back in 2009. It was a fun event, with a kazoo-tooting marching band and a few wild, pedal-powered contraptions that appeared to have escaped from some steam-punk fantasy. Lots of cyclists were there, although the connection to the cycling community is really a bit tenuous: just the fact that the towering piece is constructed out of bikes. But cyclists, ever the underdogs and outsiders, are always happy to embrace any bit of bike-related hoopla that they can claim as their own. For a fan of cycling, it's fun to get up close to the sculpture and see all the bikes that went into it. You're unlikely to find any legendary racing frames in there. Most are what I would call big-box, entry-level bikes: the bikes that show up under a childhood Christmas tree, get ridden half to death for a few years, then tossed aside. If you have a gloomy turn of mind, you might see all those discarded frames and lament the waste. Or, giving it a more positive spin, you could picture all the fun those kids had on their little bikes. You could see the sculpture as an evocation of all those youthful miles and smiles. In either case, the final result is a happy ending: all of these twisted, tangle tubes have been kept out of the landfill and instead are now welded together into a wonderful piece of art.

4 Times DailyAnother setting for monumental sculpture that you would be unlikely to visit--unless you make a point of going there--is the Paradise Ridge Winery Sculpture Garden, which I mentioned in my previous ode to art. It's still there, up a little side lane off of Thomas Lake Harris Drive in the Fountaingrove district on the north rim of Santa Rosa. Whenever I ride my bike up there, I'm always surprised to see what has been added. And a lot has. I was especially impressed on my most recent visit by an enormous Richard Serra construction called 4 Times Daily. This little photo doesn't begin to convey either its immense size or its artistic complexity.

You'll want to to wearing walkable bike shoes when you visit the garden. Dozens of sculptures are scattered through several meadows and shady glades. The terrain is natural and would be a bit of a rough go in cleats. (Come to think of it: maybe walking bike shoes are a marker for that segment of the cycling population that is more interested in stopping to admire art than in hammering on down the road with blinders on.)

What got me thinking about doing an encore Art of Cycling column was an explosion of roadside sculpture up at the north end of Sonoma County, around the little towns of Geyserville and Cloverdale. I've been noticing interesting pieces of sculpture cropping up around those two towns for quite awhile now…years, at least…but it recently reached some sort of critical mass that caused me to google it and find out who was behind it. Turns out it's a joint venture, bringing together the Geyserville Chamber of Commerce, the Cloverdale Art Alliance and some energetic art patrons. They have created something called the Sculpture Trail, connecting the two towns.

Now the monumental pieces seem to be everywhere, from front yards along Main Street to frontages along the freeway. Running HomeOne of my favorites is Max Heige's Running Home. Unlike the Cyclisk or the Paradise Ridge landscape, you don't have to ride much out of your way to stumble upon the Sculpture Trail installations. They're all along one popular wine country cycling road or another. This is a new enough project that they are just now having their grand opening artists' reception on May 9 in Cloverdale.

Finally, I want to revisit one of the artists I featured in my initial Art essay: Patrick Amiot. And the first thing I want to say about him is that it is actually about them: not only Patrick, but also his wife Brigitte Laurent. He fabricates the pieces of "junk art" (their term, not mine) and she paints them. If you have had the good fortune to view any--or many--of their sculptures around the county, you know that the painting Brigitte does is at least as important as the welding and sawing and bolting Patrick does.

But aside from those very valid issues of equal recognition for equal work, I want to report that Patrick and Brigitte are still going strong…still turning out large and small sculptures for a vast array of clients. Their home street of Florence Avenue in my town of Sebastopol is still lined with sculptures in almost every front yard, and you cannot ride up the street without seeing folks strolling the sidewalks, snapping photos of all the fun pieces…and smiling. Always smiling.

I've had the opportunity to get to know Patrick and Brigitte since I wrote that first piece. I've sat at their kitchen table over a cup of good coffee and engaged in a lively discussion about art and culture and bleeping, snooty Parisians. (P&B are from French Canada and don't have much use for the high hats from the old country.) I also enjoyed Patrick's guided tour of his warehouse/junk yard out on Hwy 116, south of Sebastopol (appropriately, almost directly across the highway from the flea market).

They have been much taken up in recent months with the construction of their biggest project ever: a $1.5-million, full-scale, junk-art carrousel, which can be seen in operation in a short video at their site.

Jan Dog ThiefI'm sorry to tell you we won't run into that marvelous carrousel on any of our local rides. It's headed to a park near Toronto. (Imagine the shipping!) But while we may miss a spin on that merry-go-round, we can spin our way past any number of other examples of art…of the creative spirit that drives some of us to reach for a bigger, better vision. We can bend our rides around so that they cross paths with the whimsical, fanciful, complex, and occasionally crazy impulses of our artistic brothers and sisters. Our world--and our bike rides--are enriched by our encounters with creativity.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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