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Mechanics at Madhouse Motors create masterpieces in motion


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Can motorcycles be works of art? Well, they are at a place called Madhouse Motors.

Jared Bowen of GBH Boston went to see how the mechanics there are creating masterpieces in motion for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: It is a rumbling repository for motorcycles, but also a coffee shop with Middle Eastern flair. And, to bike aficionados, it's Eden.

How do you describe displays?

Nick Timney, Manager, Madhouse Motors: The coolest place I have ever been.

Jared Bowen: Nick Timney is the manager of Madhouse Motors in Boston. It's a place for tuneups and repairs, but also much more than that, a place where antique bikes live, where they take on new personas, and where people like Timney, who grew up riding dirt bikes on West Virginia trails, are drawn to test their mettle.

Nick Timney: I would come at like 8:00 in the morning, and I would work until 5:00, when I had to go to my bar job, and I would work until 4:00 in the morning, something like two years of that. And I think I kind of proved myself to her, and I became a mechanic at Madhouse.

Jared Bowen: She is J. Shia, owner of Madhouse Motors, and sculptor of motorcycles.

J. Shia, Owner, Madhouse Motors: Yes, there's a lot of parts on both these bikes that are abnormal, everything from like where you put your feet on these to the taillights.

The taillight on this is egg slicer. It functions. It has a purpose, instead of it just being there for aesthetic appeal.

Jared Bowen: Picasso did that a lot.

J. Shia: He did. But people don't talk as much about his sculpture work.

Jared Bowen: Shia and her team run the creative arm of Madhouse Motors like an artist's workshop, a place of design, discussion, and experimentation with every bike.

J. Shia: We want it to be composed properly and be aesthetically beautiful and be able to carry a storyline. Yes, we view it like making a kinetic sculpture.

And if someone calls it art, I think we're all ecstatic about it.

Jared Bowen: How much does a bike tell you what it should be?

J. Shia: Oh, the whole time. It's like I'm really not in as much control as I would like to be.

Jared Bowen: Motorcycles are in her blood, interest Shia inherited from her enthusiast father and, before that, her grandmother, seen here in Lebanon. It's also an interest influenced by her photography studies at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

J. Shia: I hated working on bikes that show up to school dirty and smell like gas and oil. And I didn't enjoy it. When I got older, I realized that trained my brain to look at a machine or look at a motorcycle, look at a custom build and say, all right, this color palettes off, or this shape is wrong, or what's the point of this, the same way that, in art class, we would dissect and digest a piece of work.

Jared Bowen: Thirteen years ago, she named the shop after her family home, a madhouse, as she describes it.

J. Shia: The community watering hole. And so people from all over the world, all different walks of life would go there and have meals and decompress and sleep there.

Rami Bishara, Madhouse Motors: If the soil is fertile, things will grow. And this place is very fertile.

Jared Bowen: Rami al-Bishara is the shop's newest member. He arrived from Beirut, where both he and his own bike shop fell victim to the Port of Beirut explosion in 2020.

Rami Bishara: The roof of my house caved in. My shop was destroyed. It was a very testing time. I have lived in a lot of places where there's war and conflict.

And this probably was one of the worst things that I have experienced.

Jared Bowen: He rebuilt. But, with Lebanon's economic collapse and after a chance meeting with Shia, he moved to the U.S. In his new Madhouse Motors job, he's losing himself in a wonderland of motorcycles he's never encountered, museum pieces, he says, like this 1972 Honda CB500.

Rami Bishara: When this hit the market, nothing was going as smooth, as reliable and as fast. I know it doesn't look like it, but this is just poetry in motion.

Jared Bowen: Like Shia, al-Bishara also has a formal arts background, designing fonts before bikes beckoned full time.

Rami Bishara: A typeface that works is the one thing that you can't notice. If you're reading a headline on a newspaper, it's the headline that matters, not the typeface.

Jared Bowen: So, then, how do you apply that to motorcycles?

Rami Bishara: They got to run. They got to work. And they have a look and feel.

Jared Bowen: Feeling he says, may be the greatest measure of success.

Rami Bishara: A motorcycle is a collection of parts, until you get on it and you start it and the engine becomes alive, and then it comes into experience.

It's now you are ingrained deep into the function of the motorcycle and what feeling it will instill in you.

Jared Bowen: So it's here in this Madhouse that ideas rev to fruition, where a saxophone can play the exhaust, and where new beginnings are ahead for man and machine.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Boston, Massachusetts.

Amna Nawaz: What a great story.

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