May 13th - July 2nd, 2016
Iron Works, Installation View, 2016
The following interview is edited together from a series of emails and face-to-face discussions held between myself, David Dyck and Ray Lodoen between February and May, 2016, leading up to Lodoen’s show Iron Works at Estevan Art Gallery & Museum
David Dyck: One of the things that runs through Matthew Crawford’s writing in his book Shopclass as Soulcraft and in other places like the TV show Dirty Jobs is the idea that you have to get your hands dirty to fully live in the world, to have an understanding of how the material things we surround ourselves with work. You seem to share this outlook. Is this something that is born of necessity, as an efficient way to make your way through the world, or more of an aesthetic choice, as an expression of identity to the world?
Ray Lodoen: My parents divorced when I was very young…the garage was still there with a ‘57 Ford in it, my dad was gone, he was a really good mechanic and a first class steam engineer. I didn’t really have a relationship with him, but there were tools in the garage and I started taking that car apart. It never went back together. The second car I had, the parts went back together. That was a good learning experience. I don’t know if it was born into me genetically, or if it was just from my surroundings, but I imagine it was a combination of nature and nurture, working on vehicles. It was truly an escape; it was my own place and my own domain. I think that’s a big part of what makes me, or anyone else human, that learning and tool making, something that would be passed on generation after generation.
DD: You don’t get to customization until later, until you can put it back together?
RL: Right, the best way to learn is from something you’re actually interested in. In 1970, I first got my Mustang bicycle. I immediately made a great big long sissy bar for it and I had about 10’ long forks on it… the front wheel didn’t turn as much as it did lay down. That’s when I started customizing all my friends’ bikes as well. I was inspired by Big Daddy Ed Roth, Don Garlits (the race car driver), Von Dutch (the pinstriper), I read a lot of Hot Rod magazine, with the CarToons comics. I also read MAD magazine. It was a little more rebellious than Archie comics, a little off the wall.
Rhonda (detail), custom motorcycle, 42” x 78” x 31”, 2010—ongoing
DD: You went back to art school at the University of Saskatchewan, what motivated you to pursue that?
RL: I grew up around art. My mother was a painter. My grandfather drew and painted and was a sign painter. Growing up at home, there were five of us kids and when mom was getting her paints out, everyone scattered… otherwise you’d get stuck there for four hours while she does your painting. So art was always there. I started out doing a lot of drawing, and a bit of sculpture. Once I went to three-dimensional work, I went back to school because I wanted to, I had been working already for many years. That was the best thing I’ve done, not only for my work but for myself as a person. It gave me a better view on life altogether. I was forty when I went back to school. It was expensive to do, along with supporting kids. What was nice about going to school was that I was the technician for the sculpture lab. It was great; I got to work with tools all the time and also with students. It was an awesome experience for me. There was nothing better for me than to have other people, dedicated students, working in the shop. Before I went to university I felt like I was set in my ideas. Then I took this extended media class with Linda Duvall, and she was talking about collaborations with place. I said ‘if I make this drawing but somebody else made this pencil, is that a collaboration?’ She said ‘I don’t know, is it?’ I wanted something to hold on to. It wasn’t until I realized that there’s not really anything definite to hold on to, that I became an artist.
DD: She just hung you out to dry?
RL: Yeah. It was awesome.
DD: There’s a gearhead aesthetic running through all of your work, and in a really authentic way, as they are functional, these motorcycles and lamps. There also seems to be criticality in your work, like in the Defensive Accessories looking at very serious things like sexual assault.
RL: I don’t believe in the distinction between art and craft at all. Lots of people don’t consider my bikes art. I’m not critical in everything I look at, not in the sense that I need some kind of statement. I can find beauty in machinery.
Blue Hondo (detail), custom motorcycle, 46” x 87” x 32”, 2010—ongoing
DD: You can’t let criticality pull the joy out of life. You have to be able to enjoy something like a big, loud machine for what it is.
RL: Absolutely. To think that there’s no art in that is absurd. Form very often follows function. For me, machines, especially the older ones that you’ve lived with have a personality. Like all of these old Fords I’ve had… you would have to jiggle the key just the right way to get it to start, or know just how much gas to give it. If there was something wrong you would know it. It’s almost an organic thing, like this machinery has something like a soul.
DD: I see this RL logo on most of your work. Since the things you make are one-offs, is this a comment on consumer culture and what might constitute a genuine understanding of customization, or to put it another way, built not bought?
RL: That whole labelling thing was something that started when I was working on Defensive Accessories, that whole branding thing in fashion. I wanted to bring some light to this very serious subject. There was something about that branding that would make something recognizable. This ended up going into the bikes, so what those motorbikes are wearing is fashion mixed with engineering. The difference in media means nothing.
Rhonda (detail), custom motorcycle, 42” x 78” x 31”, 2010—ongoing
DD: How did you decide on the form of these bikes? Looking at your build pictures, you seem to have wrapped these bikes around your body as you go through the build process…
RL: I made a bracket to hold the front wheel and rear wheel and engine, then I stuck a 2x4 on it and sat down to figure out where my butt needed to be. I don’t do any drawings. When I was in sculpture class in school, we got marks for keeping a sketchbook. So I always got 15% off my mark every class. Things form in my mind, and they may change as they go. Put some bends in some pipes and find out if you like it or you don’t. Bend it and cut it until you get a nice flow. For these bikes the function and the aesthetics came before comfortability, but they ended up being comfortable anyway. There are changes along the way, like on Blue Hondo, at first, the frame went back to the rear axle, but I had this dream where it looped all the way around the back, so I worked that out.
DD: Researching the Honda CB 350, the bike that provided the engines for Rhonda and Blue Hondo, I found that it was the motorcycle with the highest production numbers of the 1970s. Is there something in this taking a bike that was so universal and making it so personalized?
RL: That did make a difference. It was light, dependable, and there were a lot of them made. I knew I wanted to build a compact bike. I’m not a fan of huge tall bikes, I like a bike that feels like it’s more human scale. Not only that, but anything after 400cc has to have a formal inspection, so it was a little easier for registration.
DD: Early on in our discussions, you suggested I watch Matthew Crawford's TED talk, and in that he says “In fixing motorcycles, you answer to standards that really aren’t open to manipulation. Either the bike starts and runs right, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t there’s no weaseling your way out of the fact.” Is the garage a refuge from endless analysis?
Iron Works Motorcycles sign, hand-painted sign, enamel on panel 32” x 28”, 2016
RL: For me it’s therapy, it stops cerebral diarrhea. There’s no doubt that that is a defining factor… either it work or it doesn’t, whatever you’re doing. For me it’s important that it works for me. I have to be happy with my work, so I have to do it to the best of my ability.
DD: In functionality, there is this performance, your own willingness to put yourself on the line on a bike that you’ve built yourself; you’ve welded the frame together, taking that bike through a corner at highway speeds. Do you ever think of the strength of your welds at times like those?
RL: I try to overbuild everything. I’ll put gussets and cross members in for strength, but also for aesthetic reasons. That’s where the work becomes different: if your life depends on it, you’re sure to take much more care. These motorcycles are totally different than any other artwork that I’ve made. I can’t have them fall apart. I built this brown bike and drove it for a whole summer. I hammered it over potholes and manhole covers, without a crack.
Ray Lodoen is as interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.