Two wheels and a thundering engine evoke something different for everyone.
Motorcycles are a form of art in their own right, from gritty dirt bikes to fully outfitted cruisers. Clevelanders participate in every aspect of the culture — including the craft behind it in ways both lofty and practical. In this short series, Fresh Water Cleveland visits three locals who bring bikes to life in the most unexpected ways. They each have a unique point of view when it comes to laying rubber on the road and keeping the shiny side up.
When local businessman Joseph Erdelac commissioned Cleveland artist Shirley Aley Campbell to document motorcycle enthusiasts across the globe more than four decades ago, her lifelong fear of bikes didn't stop her from respecting and superbly depicting the culture. It took years, but when the commission was finally complete, she'd created an extensive — and historic — visual collection of the people who live to ride. In all, 13 five- by seven-foot acrylic images of different bikers would make up "The Motorcyclists of the Seventies,” from Swedish Grand Prix racers and outlaw biker clubs to pleasure rides and a frantic wartime escape.
Shirley Aley Campbell
“He loved art,” recalls Campbell of Erdelac, who owned an AMC dealership
on Lorain Road. “That was his passion. He loved automobiles… He had never been on a motorcycle. He said it’s a thing of the future. He thought for certain we would all be driving motorcycles some day.
“I had a painting at the May Show at the [Cleveland] museum [of Art]," she continues. "He said, ‘I love your painting. How much is it?’ I said $2,000. Then I said I need a car because he was a car salesman. I said how about a car for the painting? He thought about it for a good hour, then he said, ‘OK. I’ll go along with that.’ Then he said, ‘so are you ready to do a series for me?’”
Erdelac’s employees set up the subjects, locations, and associated events, the first of which was in the Flats. It became “The Hillclimb”, and kicked off the series in July 1973.
Further reading: Erdelac and the last Studebaker Avanti
Each painting took one to three months to complete, with her subjects sitting for lengthy periods over multiple days. She worked off the hundreds of sketches she done along with photographs. She composed the images and added details based on the subjects’ personalities and the situations being conveyed. She took into account every detail of the painting. She would also add various materials to provide texture to the pieces.
Swedish TT - Grand Prix '74
“Sometimes the works are too flat, so texture makes it exciting,” she says, adding that Erdelac was a perfectionist, but she lived up to the task.
“He said to me you have got to get everything perfect. The wheels have to be perfect, because they’ll be examined. So I had to go look at all these spokes, sketch them, make sure that they were right. He had this group of engineers examine them, and I stood in the background thinking I hope to god I got it right
… I spent many evenings going into tire shops, sketching them.”
Unexpected works, astounding response
78th Street Studios
owner Daniel Bush, who purchased the entire "Motorcycles" series has been a fan of Campbell’s work for years.
“I’ve been collecting Shirley’s work as they become available,” he says. “I knew what an important collection these 13 paintings were… We agreed that the pieces should stay together since they were commissioned as a collection. I’m not sure that anyone else was going to do that, so I bought them as part of the permanent collection of 78th
Street Studios. I was really excited to have the opportunity and some big empty walls. I’m astounded at the amount of response they’ve gotten… People are so excited to see these.”
The series was on display in Gallery 215 at 78th
Street Studios earlier this year and will return in its entirety later this summer. Four pieces in the second floor hallway leading to the gallery will remain up in the interim.
Unexpected angles, composition, cropping and background colors give each of the paintings an element of surprise. In "Championnat D'Europe," a sidecar racer leans dangerously far over the rigging with a competitor hot on his heels. A group of riders laboriously push their bikes away from the frame in "Imatranajo Sudmen Grand Prix" while a teammate sits calmly on the sideline. Or consider "International Six Day Trial," in which the grittiness of the pit scene is perfectly contrasted against a surreal lemon gray background.
And when Harley-riding Dot Robinson
showed up in head-to-toe pink, Campbell painted herself into the frame wearing blue to offset the overpowering color.
Campbell says that she had a ball painting the series, noting everyone was incredibly accommodating and nice to her — from a successful business suit-clad Hollywood producer riding with his family in "John Burke" to the Russians featured in "Ice Races," which she had to meet in Holland on account of a Visa snafu.
“They couldn’t imagine a woman painting. They’d ask me ‘Why aren’t you with husband at home with children?’” she recalls. “They were racing on ice, and I was underneath looking up at them. I was in the pit, and the ice was falling down on me. Those bikes went fast! I don’t know how they drove those things on ice.” The tire spikes she expertly depicted in the image, however, help to answer that question.
Angels: from hell to flying high
Although each person was unique, Campbell says she enjoyed them all.
“When you do a load like that, nothing’s your favorite,” she continues. “I like the Hell’s Angels, though. When I had the exhibit, they sat in front of my painting (of the Hell's Angels Los Angeles Motorcycle Club’s John Knoble and Bob 'Laco' Lawrence) and they had a guard there. They said if anybody touches that painting they’ll get knifed. But the Hell’s Angels were very nice.”
Campbell captured "The Flying Angel" Debbie Lawler
, an accomplished motorcycle jumper, who had just suffered a terrible accident prior to her sitting, and was very emotional about being unable to race. She also depicted a Vietnamese family fleeing their homeland with a stark yellow background, although the scene was recreated Stateside. Campbell’s husband helped to prop the motorcycle up so they appeared to be driving.
The Flying Angel
The most difficult piece is perhaps "Abram Drain," a portrait of a man who had seriously injured his legs racing. An image of a fallen bike on the top of the work shows where Campbell watched a man die.
“I’ve never been on a motorcycle,” she says. “I never wanted to get on one. I only observed. I was afraid of it. I saw one guy in one of the races die and that did it for me. I respected them," she adds. "I thought it was a great thing to be into really, but I would never get on one. It scared me.”
The series culminated in January 1981 with “When I Met the Lord, He was Wearing Loafers,” a portrait of Alexander 3rd Lord Hesketh, whom Campbell recalls as a braggart British millionaire. Hesketh did, however, found Hesketh racing
and Hesketh Motorcycles
When I Met the Lord, He was Wearing Loafers
Campbell’s extensive body of work, however, is hardly confined to images of people on two wheels. She often compassionately depicts people on society’s fringe, including counter-culture strippers and prostitutes. She was also depicting transgendered people before the term was coined. One of her intriguing subjects included the 1980 murder of Stella Walsh
, the controversial intersex Olympic athlete.
A 1947 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art
and a 1986 Cleveland Arts Prize recipient, Campbell’s work has been exhibited at major museums across the country. She also spent years teaching at Tri-C's Western Campus
. Her work is in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art
, the Butler Institute of American Art
and Case Western Reserve University
, as well as private collections throughout the United States. "The Motorcyclists of the Seventies,” however, has been the most comprehensive project of her career.
The 92-year-old still paints everyday in her apartment at an assisted living facility. She also teaches painting to the other residents.
“If you don’t paint every day, people will see your strokes and say ‘why haven’t you been working?’”