A lot of what you see here in BR&K is the result of reader's leads.They spot something and send me an E-mail about it. Quite often, of course, I've already heard about it, but all leads are appreciated. Last issue, reader leads were mostly oriented toward the new Schwinn Stingray Chopper. This time, they were heavily to do with Kyle Watson's amazing chopper, which has been marketed as a functional "sculpture", and sold through eBay, among other venues. I'm rather interested in this sort of angle, as I've had shows of "functional sculpture" in art galleries before, and our Wizard Bros 2Much!!! kustom recumbent trike was accepted as a "floor piece" into a mixed-media art show at a gallery in Baton Rouge. Since our readers are obviously also interested, and BR&K operates under the assumption that it's an art publication which happens to specialize in bicycles, this creation seemed the perfect subject for us to cover in depth. I therefore resolved to see about interviewing Mr. Watson. As fate would have it, no sooner had I made that decision than I got a press release with photos from Dave Goeppner of Vision Artist Group, which represents his work. I immediately wrote back, requesting the interview. And here it is:
Photographed by Justin Munter
Q: Many artists have worked within the form of the bicycle to create art which happens to also function as a form of transportation, at least in theory. Since the'60s, when I started paying close attention to cycle/art intersections, the most "artistic" of them, in my opinion, have been formed mostly from laminated woods, combined with other materials. Your Atom Bomb Chopper, in the masterful way you have worked with metal media, and the added monumentality of the chopper form, have resulted in what is probably the most impressive "bike-art" piece I've seen to date.
We'll have lots of questions about the bike itself, naturally. But first, I'd like to find out what led up to you, a design school grad with a degree in furniture design, taking on the creation of a multiple high-tech sculpture edition in the form of chopper bicycles. So Kyle, how did your work arrive at this place?
A: The answer to your question is pretty simple. I simply didn't own a bike. So I thought I'd give building one a try. It worked out so well that I made bicycles my focus for my senior year in college. The bike you've seen is the fifth. I had so much fun with the first one that I just couldn't stop building them.
The challenges involved with designing and building a bicycle interested me more than those involved in furniture design. When you design and build a piece of furniture the thing you're left with simply sits in a room in your house. It may look cool but its life from that point on is pretty static. A bicycle on the other hand will always be a dynamic piece. Furniture is defined by the space it occupies but a bicycle defines space as it moves through it. Besides bicycles are more fun. Try riding around the block on a coffee table and you'll understand why I started building them.
Q: Your approach to object design shows a very consistent style. It was easy to recognize that, for example, the table and your bikes were created by the same person. And it's a different approach from most people's. What is it that you most like about that way of inter-relating components, in that sort of individualistic "TinkerToy"-like system?
A: I loved tinker toys, Legos, and Erector sets when I was a kid. Still do, actually. With a pile of simple components a child can build anything his or her imagination can cook up. These toys not only promote creativity they teach the basics of geometry , spatial
relations, and mechanical engineering. I think playing with these toys as a boy gave me a foundation for building and design.
In college I used this foundation to comfort my brain in a way. Instead of designing the complicated using complicated components I designed the complicated using simple components. These simple tinker toy-ish components allowed me to create super-complicated structures that looked cool, didn't fall over, and didn't make my brain hurt (it did but not that bad). I also think it's a look that people can relate to, they've seen it before, it doesn't intimidate, and if they played with these toys it reminds them of what it was to be a kid.
Art is an escape, it takes the viewer to another place. It also carries with it a message. For me the place is childhood and the message is fun. The world is complicated enough, and in my opinion the last thing
someone needs is complicated art.
Q: Some people never get past their Erector Set affinity when it comes to design, which may be seen in many recumbent bikes- one of my running jokes. But, you've gone way past that approach in the structures you end up with; but it's neat that you still incorporate some concepts and themes you first learned from the toys. At first, I thought that your use of truss-work in your chopper was an example of how sophisticated your work has become. Then it dawned on me that Erector Set structural members have a truss-work pattern punched out of them, for lightness and materials efficiency. That it took me that long to recognize the influence is a tribute to the sophistication of your vision, though.
Jeff Koons is someone who's dabbled in that sort of childhood-toy evocation psychology, with much less success than you, other than financial, of course. I'm sure you've seen that piece of his, in which he had an Italian foundry cast a big replica of one of those trashy inflatable bunny rabbit things in stainless steel. I'm glad that was the medium, and not platinum or titanium. That would have been really distasteful. You use high-tech materials and technology in a natural way, which makes sense; not on some stupid joke about wasting money on expensively-produced schlock. I'll bet you're not snickering at the people who're buying your Chopper pieces, but I really can't say the same about Koons.
This might be a good time to suggest that you're not pricing those chopper objects high enough, considering them as multiple-edition sculptures made of expensive materials. As bikes, I might also add that it's easily possible to walk into a bike shop and spend a lot more for something which only works for that function. Something to consider, hmmmm?
Jeff Koons: Rabbit, 1986 stainless steel
Let's talk about your creative process for a bit, if we may. With a multiple, the design and production processes have to be worked out pretty much exactly before production starts; but when you created the prototype, did you work out how you wanted it to look and work totally in advance of execution, or was the design process more organic, in which you start with a kernel, and everything else develops off of that?
Table "Insect Study #1" 1998
Baltic birch plywood and TIG-welded mild steel.
A: I try to work out as much as I can on paper first. Both college and the military taught me that planning is 90% of a project the other 10% is there for you to screw up in. Once I start building it things always change. I'm still refining the process, every bike is different. No matter how well I plan a bike out, it always presents its own unique set of problems. No two bikes are 100% exactly the same, each one has its own personality
Q: In the case of this bike, intended to be a multiple, what was the process by which you got from the final visualization of the piece to the first of the edition which was shipped to a buyer? I presume you didn't go straight to the welding fixture, or did you plan it that thoroughly?
A: The bikes go from a simple sketch, to a full-scale drawing, where most of the bugs are worked out. When I say "most of the bugs" I mean about 51%. I've found that no matter how hard I try to work things out on paper problems always arise in the building phase. From there I pretty much go straight to welding. Once I've got the thing built,
every little thing that isn't quite right is noted .The plans, jigs, and fixture are then altered to produce a more "perfect" version. This more "perfect" version is the final. All bikes after that point are modeled after that one.
Q: Scott Brandt's looked really worked-out to me, and beautifully finished. Scott told me you got his measurements before you started it. How do you handle variations like that?
A: It's really pretty simple. The bike is made up of simple planar
geometric shapes. An inch here, an inch there does a lot to change the bike's geometry. It really doesn't take much to get it to fit someone who's basically average in height and weight. If a 7' 350 # person wanted a bike it would probably be a different story.
Q: Does that "Tinker-Toy" system of yours facilitate that proportional flexibility, or is that more of a styling thing? It works very well, visually. I couldn't quite tell how the system looked in detail from the photos; but seeing it in person, I was impressed by how stylin' all those acorn nuts in wells look. Very hot-rod!
A: Thanks! Both. It allows me to change the proportions of the bike without making it obvious. In a traditionally- constructed bike, any change in its proportions are easily seen. With everything that's going on in these bikes, changes in proportion are almost invisible. Unless, of course, you put two of them next to each other. I also did it to be a little different. I wanted to see if I could build a bike in a way that's completely unlike anything out there.
Q: You succeeded pretty well, I'd say. I think I've only seen one other bike with a truss-work-themed frame (a Bugatti road bike from the '70s), and it was pretty conventional in every other aspect. Throw in that fascinating fastening system and that radical chopper architecture, and you have a pretty unique machine.
You've also got a pretty non-traditional materials list for a bicycle. Can you tell us about the more interesting materials and processes you've used in it?
A: The main parts of the frame are TIG-welded T-304 stainless steel. It's much stronger then mild steel with about the same weight. The parts with color are water jet cut, powder-coated mild steel. Powder-coating coats and seals the steel and prevents any corrosion from occurring, also it's nearly bullet proof. It's not enough for a bike to look tough, it's got to be tough.
Q: Aside from all the interesting frame geometry and detailing, one of my favorite parts is that seat. It looks incredible, like something from a sci-fi movie, because of that mirror polish on the bare formed metal. Scott was a little unsure of that, and was toying with the idea of maybe padding it. But after actually riding it for 10 or so miles on his ride home, he seems to have changed his mind, because it was actually comfortable for the whole trip. How many experimental contours did you go through before you arrived at the final form? And how is the metal formed?
A: Actually, I make them in the lowest-tech way possible. I beat on it with a hammer over a bag of lead shot. After hitting it for a while I have a seat, so to speak. I repeat this process until it feels right. The hammer forms it, my butt tests it. The final step is polishing, then onto the bike.
Q: I'm impressed! I was sort of expecting you to say that you carved a stamping die from tool steel- yadda yadda. This is considerably funkier, and more "artistic". Looks just like you carved the stamping die, though, it's so perfect. As I understand it, you're planning to do an edition limited to a hundred of these bikes. How many of them have you finished at this point?
A: I'm sorry to say, only five. We've got a long way to go before we meet our goal.
Q: But you've only been offering them for a few months, right? We started getting in leads from our readers about it maybe two months ago. Sometimes it's better to have a slow buildup, rather than being swamped with orders right off the bat. It gives you a chance to really work out the production efficiencies before the bullets start flying. It's tough to think about that sort of thing while you're racing deadlines and people are rushing you. Of course, now that you're being featured in BR&K, that situation may change in a hurry. It's certainly happened before. Do you find, after having built five, that you're better prepared to deal with a steady stream of them, now that you've had some practice?
A: You bet, actually I designed them to be built
in only a couple of days. This allows me to build
at least 2 a week.
Q: Is the design essentially locked-in; or are you still tweaking the details? I notice that Scott's Chopper has a really nice 3D head badge on it, which I didn't notice in the original photos.
Portfolio: Earlier Examples of Bike Art by Kyle Watson:
All are made from TIG welded T304 stainless steel
and building custom furniture or doing metal repair work in the Detroit area. I've also gone back to teaching at The College For Creative Studies in Detroit. But you're very right; I'm beginning to get a little bored after only five. Don't get me wrong, I love building them, and if I had the chance to, I'd build a thousand. To combat this boredom, I try to keep designing bikes, furniture, sculpture, whatever strikes me as fun at the time. The more I do the happier I am.
Q: Nothing like having orders stacked up to the ceiling and not enough time to do them to relieve boredom. So, I hope things get exciting for you really soon. They should, because your Choppers are unique, exquisite and, in my opinion, a lot of bang for the buck. Somebody who has one will instantly have something totally different to ride, with the sculpture aspect thrown in as a lagniappe. Scott plans to hang his on his living-room wall when he's not riding it, surrounded by a big free-floating picture frame, as New Yorkers tend to not have much floor space to spare.
Thanks very much for your conversation, and we wish you well.
A: First off, let me say thank you for this wonderful opportunity, and thank you for all the compliments and support. Thank you for fighting the good fight against the everyday, the run of the mill, and the armies of conformity. The world needs more people like you. It's one thing to recognize and appreciate the unusual but it's quite another to help bring it to the masses.
Those interested in acquiring one of Mr. Watson's Atom Bomb Choppers may go directly to the Vision Artist Group website from here. My advice is to do so soon, as in my humble opinion, they are extremely under-valued at the moment, and should become considerably more expensive in the very near future.
A: The original photos were of the prototype. The prototype had an incorrect rake and trail, thus a much shorter head tube. I've since corrected the problem, which in turn, created a longer head tube. This allowed me to incorporate a head badge. At this point, the bike is pretty much worked out in its final form. Now I 'm faced with figuring out better ways of building them. Tighter craftsmanship and faster production has become my main focus.
Q: I don't know about you, but to me, doing a hundred of anything would tend to get a little boring after a while. Will you wait until you've done the full hundred of this edition before getting into another project, or will you be working something else into your work- stream? If so, will it be another bicycle?
A: I wish I could say that building bikes was my full time job. Most of the time I'm designing