Every time you think Michael Lichter’s annual Motorcycles as Art show in Sturgis can’t get any better, he raises the bar again. Maybe this year’s theme, “Naked Truth,” is what makes the 2015 exhibition so special because it leaves nothing to hide. There’s no high dollar paint to dazzle the eyes on any of the 36 motorcycles on display, just simple, unadulterated craftsmanship. And the skill and artistry of the bikes in the 15th annual Motorcycles as Art Show at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip is unparalleled.
When we asked Lichter about “Naked Truth,” he said inspiration for this year’s theme came during last year’s Motorcycles as Art show. Ray Drea, head of design at Harley-Davidson who had a motorcycle in the exhibit, asked Lichter if he’d ever thought about doing a show without paint, which is interesting considering Drea is a painter and pinstriper by trade, essentially writing himself out. But they agreed that showcasing motorcycles stripped down to essentials was an awesome theme.
“Some people get so caught up in detail or technical things they forget about overall shape and form. Especially when there’s paint, then you really have this cover up. And that was the idea of the show. I feel that, the way I see it is at least 95% of the people have 90% of their impression based on surface detail. The idea this year was to strip that away and say, let’s look at the bike itself, shape and form and design, and also for craftsmanship, because you show it, there’s nothing else to look at,” said Lichter.
This year’s exhibit was also a virtual baring of the soul for Lichter who showcased 105 of his own prints, 67 shown for the first time because he “wanted to keep it fresh.” It is a visual diary of his life, the places he’s been, the people he’s seen, each shot bringing about incredible memories. There’s a logic to the visual sequence he states is “based on content, form, color, gesture and emotion.” His work also represents changes in culture, both in the motorcycle community and America as a whole. Lichter chooses to showcase his work at the show every five years, adding to the special quality of the 2015 exhibit.
For example, the photo titled “Burning Bike” (1985) shows a foreign bike strung up and burning during the rally, Lichter saying for people to go to those extremes expresses sentiments of the time. “Bike Bash” (1983) does too as it displays a man taking a sledgehammer to a Japanese motorcycle in front of the Iron Horse Saloon on Main Street in Daytona Beach. There’s a more current shot of a girl’s hands clutching her helmet who was hitchhiking from Phoenix to Born Free and all she brought was her helmet. Then there’s his first picture from Sturgis in 1979, the one with the guy wrapped up in a moving blanket sleeping next to his motorcycle, his prosthetic leg leaning against his Panhead.
Michael Lichter talks about one of the photos he shot on his first trip to Sturgis back in 1979.
Then there’s the motorcycles themselves. Walk into the exhibit and the first thing you see is Rick Bray’s striking chopper with the torsion Springer front end.
Bray said he “Built everything, wheels, frame, everything on it. It’s got a big ol’ ’49 Pan, STD Cases, dual Linkerts, DC Linkerts. I build race cars too so there’s a lot of race car inspiration in it. I like early Indy cars, gassers, kind of a mixture of racing periods.” Bray added that the frame is the biggest he’s ever built, 7-inches up and 3.5-inches out. In true gasser style, he built 12-spoke “Mag” wheels and runs a 19-inch Hurst slick on the rear. Lichter also pointed out the fantastic linkages Bray creates.
When talking about the “Mack Racer” he built based on an OHV 1914 Perry Mack engine, Billy Lane said it’s “a little bit different. Instead of building something beautiful or for a show, it’s really meant to be for racing. And we’re going to race. I’m making 25 of these bikes with all different engines but all the chassis will be the same. Same wheels, tires, forks and front ends. Everybody who races will throw an engine in it, a pre-1930 1000cc Twin motorcycle engine. This is a Perry Mack motor. Perry Mack was Harley-Davidson’s first paid employee who went on to make his own overhead valve engines a quarter-century before Crocker and Harley-Davidson started making their overhead valve engines, so it’s really ahead of its time.”
Billy Lane’s “Mack Racer” is built to race.
The attention to detail on Cristian Sosa’s “Suavesito” is admirable. The build by Sosa Metal Works out of Las Vegas centers around a 1940 Indian Scout engine and 3-speed transmission with everything but the wheels and chain crafted by hand, its slick tank suspended below the backbone of the frame.
“I never really plan anything out. I just kind of sit the motor out on my table and build around it. Every little piece on the bike is completely handmade and it all starts with whatever I have laying around. Everything, from things like the motor mount which is probably 12 pieces. The mechanical linkage for the throttle is inspired by the Indian 8-valve. Every single little piece is all handmade,” said Sosa.
Faith Forgotten Chopper’s Will Ramsey was one of the hardest working men at the show. Three of his frames are featured in “Naked Truth,” one for his own bike, one for SpeedKing’s Jeff Cochran, and one for Bill Dodge of Bling’s Cycles.
Fellow builders check out Will Ramsey’s build with a titanium wishbone frame and titanium Springer. The bike is so light it’s hard to believe it runs a Harley V-Twin.
Ramsey’s “Wasted and Wounded” motorcycle features a slightly raked titanium wishbone frame and a narrow titanium Springer front end teamed to tall ape hangers. The engine is a 1960’s Panhead bored out to 80-inches mated to a 1960 Harley 4-speed tranny.
“I’ve been building frames since 2009, but for the last couple of years since working with Jeff (Cochran) and seeing the way he does the hardtail geometry it’s really changed the way I look at the stance of a bike. It changed a lot about the way I build, to be an hour-and-a-half away from his shop and be able to spend time with him and stuff.
“I built a gas tank out of titanium a couple years ago for my personal bike and since then I’ve been working with titanium a lot and working with a lot of sport bike guys doing exhaust, and I knew I wanted to do this and I was kind of waiting for the right opportunity. When Michael called me, I was already in the middle of doing two stainless frames so I knew I didn’t want to do stainless so I bit the bullet and went ahead and pulled the trigger on the titanium frame and front end. I wanted the look to be classic, I was really going for a ‘60s, late ‘60s outlaw style chopper,” said Ramsey.
His motorcycle is amazingly light, Lichter demonstrating this fact by lifting it off its sidestand with one hand.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Words fail to do justice to what these builders have accomplished. It’s hard to portray the skill of Cherry’s Company Kuroosu “Kross” and the drag-inspired Panhead he built or Dalton Walker’s Petruzzi water-cooled Knucklehead the “Fresno Flyer” in one-dimensional words. But you can get a sense of their skill in our video and we encourage anyone who is in Sturgis to take the time out to witness Lichter’s “Naked Truth” exhibit first hand out at The Buffalo Chip. You won’t be sorry you did.