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Art of the Chopper Presidential Exhibition

Don’t call it a bike show

Meet me in Toad Suck

Little Rock, Arkansas, Sept. 20—Some might refer to Tom Zim­beroff as a man of vision. Others might say he is driven—still others, possessed. But no matter the label, no photographer has been as instrumental in elevating the “art form” of custom bike building from the garage to the gallery as Zimberoff. Beginning with the release of his very popular coffee table book Art of the Chopper in 2003, Zimberoff followed a few years later with another success, Art of the Chopper II. Both books featured top-name builders in the motorcycle industry with snippets of the art­ists’ history including biographies, motivation and examples of their work. Each chapter also included stark black and white portraits of the selected builder in an imaginative pose. (A third book has already been photographed and is now in the final stages before publication.) The book series was broadened this year when a hand-selected group of previously featured builders loaned their crea­tions to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Tom Zimberoff’s talents expanded from photographer and author to curator and purveyor of haut moteur (Tom’s defined equivalent to haute couture in the fash­ion world).

Zimberoff is no newcomer to either the world of cameras or motorcycles. He started his photography career touring with The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones. From there he progressed to Central America where he did work for Time magazine. His work has appeared on the covers of People, Money, Time and Fortune. He has captured the likeness of actors, artists, politicians, musicians and scientists—from Dennis Hopper to Paul Newman, Groucho Marx to John Lennon. Eight years ago, he accidentally met Presi­dent Clinton in San Francisco at Pier 23. They had both stopped to grab a hamburger. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Tom showed Clinton his portfolio and in the end, Clinton went outside to admire Tom’s bike. That was the last time Zimberoff had any contact with Clinton until March of this year. That’s when the Presi­dential Library invited Zimberoff to display his Art of the Chopper exhibition in Little Rock. (Tom and partner/co-producer Michael Short had been “shopping” the concept around the museum circuit but had never contacted the Pre­si­dential Library.) They were given just under six months to produce this show­case of the “high priests of horsepower.”

The William J. Clinton Presiden­tial Library sits on the banks of the Arkansas River, in downtown Little Rock. It’s an impressive three-story structure of glass and chrome surrounded by sculptured park areas. It houses Clinton’s presidential limousine on the first floor, a reproduction of the Oval Office (furnished as it was during Clinton’s presidency) on the third floor and an entire collection of B-Western movie memorabilia that the President has accumulated since childhood somewhere in between. The Art of the Chop­per features 29 handcrafted bikes by 25 builders from around the world. Eight of the featured builders were also on hand this day, stationed near their creations, signing autographs, posing for photos and answering a lot of “How’d you do that?” questions. To add depth to the showing, framed black and white photos representing a majority of the images Zimberoff has shot from all three books were scattered throughout the library. Zimberoff had also invited legendary motorcycle engraver “CJ” Allan to participate in the exhibition. Allan is one of the pioneers of the cus­tom motorcycle movement and has performed his metal carving for every­one from Ed Roth to Indian Larry (Larry’s bike “Chain of Mystery” was on display at the library, highlighting the quality of Allan’s work).

Held in conjunction with the grand opening of the Art of the Chopper ex­hibition, the Library committee also orchestrated what they have labeled the first American Classics Festival. This featured a March of Dimes Bikers for Babies Ride, the Rib Rally on the River Back­yard BBQ Cook Off and a concert by Little Feat. For the Bikers for Babies Ride, participants assembled at 14 different locations and rode to Toad Suck Park in Con­way. From there, more than 2,000 strong, they rode the back roads to the Presi­dential Library. For $30 per rider and $30 per passenger, they received a T-shirt, lunch and admission to both the Clinton Library and the concert that evening. By day’s end, more than 12,000 had joined in the celebration, making the festival a noted success.

During my interview with Tom Zimberoff, he reminded me several times that this was not a bike show—it’s an art exhibition designed to bring public attention to the artists. He eventually hopes to arrange a second exhibition with 100 bikes, a “grand pantheon” of sorts that will bring due recognition to these legendary Picassos of the cutting torch, these Van Goghs of the grinder. And along the way, if he sells a few more books, I’m sure that won’t dampen his enthusiasm for the project. While I’m not certain I really buy into all this “bike building as an art form” (I’ve got a sticker on my old Shovel­head that states simply “NOT ART”—and no one has ever contested that statement), I was im­pressed with the diversity of the bikes, the quality dedicated to the arrangement and the attention to detail. As a photo­graphy hack, I have to acknowledge the mastery of Tom’s camera skills—a proficiency that adds that extra bit of seasoning and truly elevates this above the status of a bike show. It’s well worth the $7 admission fee. The exhibition will run until February 8, 2009.

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