'CLOSE TO THE GROUND': Lance Nolley of Museum of Discovery takes a ride on new exhibit.
Once thought of as a kind of rolling sneer at establishment and order, lately motorcycles have gained a mainstream acceptance as works of industrial sculpture, appreciated as much for their style as for what they say about the person in the saddle.
Regionally, this appreciation is on display at two exhibits of bi-wheeled beauty: the “Designs Through Time” show through Aug. 28 at the Museum of Discovery and the much more extensive “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit on display until Oct. 30 at the Pyramid in Memphis.
Andy Wolf, owner of Howlin’ Custom Cycles in Little Rock, said that the even if he wasn’t in the business, he’d be happy that motorcycles are gaining more mainstream acceptance, both as transportation and as works of art. Wolf said he’s always been a fan of old iron.
“I like the old, vintage way of doing things — the old craftsmanship,” Wolf said. “Everything is so mass-produced now, smooth. The old motorcycles, they were kind of crude, unrefined.”
Wolf sees the current glut of motorcycle-themed reality shows on cable as the reason for the newfound appreciation of motorcycles. The Discovery Channel, Speedvision and TLC currently all have at least one weekly show in which builders create custom bikes on camera.
Melissa Long, parts manager for Hardrider Custom Motorcycles in Sherwood, said that motorcycles have always been works of art for her. “Motorcycles are very beautiful in every aspect, all the way down to the rubber,” she said.
Thanks to the growing appreciation of chopper style, Long said that many people these days want a longer, lower bike — bikes with more “stretch” and “rake.”
“Anything from the old school is awesome,” she said. “To make a new bike look old school, that’s the big thing right now.”
“They’re a whole lot more acceptable than they used to be,” says Lance Nolley, director of exhibits and facilities at the Museum of Discovery. “When you say ‘biker’ today, you’re not just talking about a bandito or some guy without a job drinking beer all day.”
Though Nolley said the “Designs” show is more about “technological change” than the more art-centered show at the Pyramid, the exhibit is still a feast for any gearhead’s eyes. The highlights of the show include: an ancient Triumph with wicker sidecar; a pristine 1939 BMW Afrika Corps motorcycle, complete with desert camo paint, beanpot helmet, and machine-gun mount. Even the newer bikes are incredible: a massive, $25,000 2005 Triumph Rocket, on loan from a soldier deployed to Iraq; and a Harley chopper, scratch-built by a shop in Waldo, its mile-deep paint swimming with dragons.
As Nolley pointed out, the newfound acceptance of motorcycles was plain to see on a recent weekday afternoon. During our 30-minute chat in the gallery, several young families made their way through the exhibit.
“There seems to be a real love affair with what motorcycles represent,” Nolley said. “I think it’s the freedom. If you ride a motorcycle, you’re exhibiting a certain independence. Maybe that’s why a lot of doctors and lawyers do it. You can be an outlaw, safely.” Too, says Nolley, “There’s something to be said for going real fast, real close to the ground.”