Passing on the passion

Builders pair up for unique exhibit

Sturgis, S.D., Aug. 7–13—On 132nd Avenue in Sturgis, along the eastern edge of the 500-acre Buffalo Chip campground and entertainment complex, sits the Lichter Exhibition Hall. This structure was specially built in 2009 to provide a permanent home for Michael Lichter’s Motorcycles as Art exhibit, and on Monday afternoon we caught our first glimpse of Michael’s 10th annual motorcycle art show.

Every year, Michael selects a different theme for the exhibit, with this year’s exhibit, named “Eternal Combustion—30 in the Wind,” intended to portray the tremendous rise of interest in custom motorcycles over the past 30 years. The number 30 holds significance to Michael in another way as well—2010 marks his 30th time attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. And to celebrate this confluence of events, he invited 15 pairs of builders to exhibit examples of their work. The 30 motorcycles shown illustrated just about every style you could think of, and some of the pairings represented opposite ends of the bike-building spectrum. The builders’ ages spanned several generations as well; some are in their 20s and others in their 70s.

The pairings represented a multitude of relationships: some of the exhibitors work together, some are related by blood, some race together, and some are friends. At least one pairing is one of traditional teacher and student, and another teams master with apprentice, while others involve nontraditional mentoring relationships. Michael says, “The idea is passing on the passion we all share for motorcycling and custom biking.” Three of the builders in particular exemplify the teaching/mentoring movement: Athena Ransom, Kevin Baas and Matt Olsen.

Athena “Chickie” Ransom, proprietor of Vagabond Choppers in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has been working on and building bikes for years. She’s always been a willing mentor and has led several bike builds at rallies. Athena found herself on stage at Sturgis once again this year, but this time, she was accompanied by high school girls from the Bernice McNaughton High School Bike Klub, the Kennedy High School Bike Club and the Eden High School Bike Club. The three girls worked feverishly all day in spite of the 104-degree heat, and to their delight, when the bike was finally done at 9:30 p.m., it started up on the first try.

Kevin “Teach” Baas of Baas Metal Craft in Lakeville, Minnesota, has become known throughout the motorcycle industry for his accomplishments as Bloomington, Minnesota’s Kennedy High School metal manufacturing instructor. About five years ago, Teach incorporated bike-building projects into his classes, and his students have exhibited their builds at bike shows, even winning awards for their bike-building prowess. Teach has also helped other high schools across the U.S. and Canada launch their own “chopper classes.”

Matt Olsen, 26, works with his dad Carl at Carl’s Cycle Supply in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and is the youth director of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. When I asked Matt what was driving him to pass on the old-bike passion at such a young age, he responded, “I grew up around the AMCA and I hung around with guys in their 60s and 70s and they helped teach me to build things. Every year I lose a couple of friends, so I need to be proactive, or else when I’m that age, there won’t be anyone around who knows all this stuff.”

In years past, Michael’s Sturgis shows have also featured posters, photographs, paintings, lithographs and sculptures created by artists from all over the world to complement the motorcycles that were exhibited. This year, for the first time and in honor of his 30th year in Sturgis, he selected 119 of his own photographs to exhibit.

Not surprisingly, the photos span over 30 years, although the sequence isn’t chronological. Michael said, “It took about six weeks to sequence them to get the flow I wanted. I look at that as a very important element.” The oldest photograph, “Early Morning,” was taken during Michael’s first visit to Sturgis. He laughed, “I partied all night the first night I got there in 1979, and I took this one when I was staggering around after I got up the next morning.”

Michael commented that he’d begun planning this year’s show even before last year’s show was mounted. Following that logic, I figured he already had next year’s theme in mind, but he wouldn’t divulge any details. I can tell you that based on my visits to several of Michael’s shows he’s always managed to outdo his exhibit from the year before. (


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