Finding a balance between art and motorcycle maintenance

J. Shia first rode a motorcycle when he was about 8 years old. Since she was small, her father to her – a handyman with a penchant for bicycles – he would start her up for her and lean her against a tree so that she could climb and ride. This worked fine until it was time to stop the bike and get off.

“To get off, I would have to line up the bike with a tree, I would miss it all the time and I would crack my head, or I would fall,” Ms. Shia said. So she would have moved on. Her two older brothers, waiting their turn, would grow impatient. But although she loved to ride, she wasn’t greedy. “I was too scared to stop at the tree,” she said.

Ms. Shia, now 31, still has the old Honda and still can barely touch the ground while on it. But she doesn’t have to stop riding anymore. You are the owner of Madhouse Motorsa 6,000-square-foot motorcycle shop in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.

Madhouse performs routine maintenance and repairs, renews vintage bicycles, provides winter storage and complete customization projects. Ms. Shia also maintains a studio there, where she creates artistic yet drivable motorcycle sculptures.

“There are a lot of people in the motorcycle world who are sort of poseurs for the culture,” said Lucas Merchant, 30, owner of a Boston property management company and a client of Ms. Shia for the past 10 years. “J is absolutely the authentic, real deal.

“He knows everything about motorcycles. Basically he built the largest classic motorcycle restoration company in New England, and it’s fully underway, “she said.” But it literally started in a backyard. “

When Ms. Shia was a teenager in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her father bought a number of old motorcycles, planning to repair and sell them. “My family’s backyard filled up,” he told her. “At one point there were like 70 old motorcycles in the yard. So I asked if I could have one, and she basically said, ‘Sure. If you can fix one, you can have it. ‘”

Through trial and error, Ms. Shia put the bike into operation and would ride it around “to show off,” she said. When people asked her how she got it, she replied, “I fixed it myself. I’m a mechanic.”

People started tapping her to fix their motorcycles and what she lacked in skill she came up with courage. “I’d give people the address of my parents and say, ‘Oh yeah, come to the yard and give me $ 20 and I’ll fix your bike.’”

She had developed an interest in photography and after high school she was accepted into Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), one of America’s oldest art schools and the only independent publicly funded art school. But the summer before her first year, an ex-girlfriend became pregnant and she wouldn’t be able to care for the baby, so Ms. Shia volunteered to take responsibility for the baby, a boy named Audai.

“I wanted to be a war documentary photographer and you can’t do that with a child,” she said. “And so I was a little confused about what I was going to do with my career.”

She continued to repair bicycles throughout college, stubbornly honing her skills and, when perplexed, cold-calling expert mechanics. She attended classes full-time, agreeing with the professors to arrive late or leave early to care for Audai and rely on the family for backup childcare.

“Once, he had to take Audai to school, and so he paid one of the girls in the photo lab to look at him for a while in the hallway,” said Gretchen Devine, 31, Ms. Shia’s companion for 11 years and a classmate. by MassArt.

“I came out of the darkroom and saw Audai, who was like 4 months old, playing in a cardboard box, and he was the cutest baby you can ever imagine,” said Ms. Devine. “So I sat down and started playing with him, and J. walked out into the hall. He will identify that moment as when he decided to try to be together. That was it. But I met the boy first, technically.”

Ms. Devine was immediately drawn to Ms. Shia’s creative ambition and talent. “I’ve never met anyone so motivated. Although I guess he’s not just self-motivated. He’s motivated for Audai, ”she said. “He Wants to see him have all the opportunities he can.”

This persistence served Ms. Shia well, but it didn’t always bring her joy. “My schedule was all sorts, so there have been many years where working on motorcycles has been kind of an act of desperation, and my family and I haven’t had such a positive connotation with that,” he said. . “I was working in two layers of Carhartts, in the ground, on the outside, for most of my teens and twenties.”

Opening her first indoor store in 2009 was a plus for Ms. Shia, as she was able to create her own space. This provided a sense of comfort and security to herself and her customers, many of whom, due to their gender, identity or sexuality, felt excluded from the wider population of motorcyclists.

“I definitely met some people on motorcycles who weren’t that open to the trans community, and it was very off-putting,” said Krys LeMay, 32, a sound engineer who bought his first bike from Ms. Shia in 2014 and remains. a loyal customer. “But that makes the connection I have that much more special. Since I am so welcomed with J. at the Madhouse, I don’t find the need to go anywhere else.

Ms. Shia hopes to expand that sense of community by building a coffee shop at Madhouse and opening it this summer. She and Mrs Devine also host an annual motorcycle show in Cambridge called Wild rabbits. This year’s event, Saturday, is expected to attract 2,000 people.

But one of the most powerful ways Ms. Shia discovered to transcend the workday was by designing bespoke motorcycles for herself. It started in 2017 when she was invited to show a bicycle at an event called Motorcycles as Art. While this seemed like the perfect opportunity to blend her art school aspirations with her current calling, she resisted, doubting. of her abilities.

“Then a light bulb went out and I was like, ‘Wait. I’ve never built a bike for myself, in a style that I like. I can do what I want, ‘”she said. “And it was this aha moment, when finally, for the first time, after a life spent around motorcycles, I designed a bike that wasn’t for a customer.”

He created a 1971 BSA A65 that started with the crank of a huge lever, in collaboration with a sculptor friend, Michael Ulman. The bike was well received and, afterwards, he began to focus more on creative projects. This led to a complex, years-long construction inspired by “Swan Lake”.

“I wanted to do a project that involved two bicycles and make them mirror each other,” said Ms. Shia. “The exact same weight, length, height, year, make, model. But to opposites. “Like the black swan and the white swan in the Tchaikovsky ballet.

He bought vintage parts, as he always had, from eBay – microscopes, pencil sharpeners, rotary phones, juicers, musical instruments – and grafted them, with each piece performing a function. The bicycles were exhibited in December at the Scope Art Show during Miami Art Week. One sold to a collector for around $ 100,000. Since October, Ms. Shia has partnered with eBay Motors and what characterized in a recent campaign called “Let’s Ride”.

Despite all of her online acquisitions, Ms. Shia recently scaled her personal collection of motorcycles from “60 or 70” to “20, 25, maybe 30?” She laughed. “I’m trying to free myself from the potential apple falling too close to the tree – from the idea of ​​hoarding, like my father.”

Continuing to break family cycles, her son, now 12, “doesn’t seem very interested in being a mechanic, and that’s the best thing for me,” Ms. Shia said. Although she is comfortable on dirt bikes and off-road bikes, she said, she has expressed interest in becoming a teacher or veterinarian.

For her future, Ms. Shia wants to continue expanding her business, serving her communities and expanding her manufacturing.

“He always wanted a bicycle at the Guggenheim, one of his motorcycle sculptures. And I think it will make it happen, ”Ms. Devine said. “Whatever she thinks of, she really does.”

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