Freewheeling Art

Inspired by other cities , a Station North contest , racks up public sculptures with a function: bike holder

November 23, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

Like most cities, Baltimore offers urban cyclists a fairly limited range of parking options - a lonely metal stanchion outside a coffee shop, perhaps, or an innocuous group rack outside an office building. If it offers anything at all.

But starting next spring, cyclists will have more choices in at least one part of town, the Station North arts and entertainment district. And Baltimore will have a new kind of sidewalk art, part of a national trend that is changing the landscape of cities large and small: the bike rack as public sculpture.

Cyclists might come upon the "John Waters" bike rack. Or the blue-crab bike rack with pincers snapping in the air. Or the eco-friendly bike rack that waters trees nearby.

Those are a few of the ideas proposed by artists, metal workers, cyclists, students and others who entered the Station North Bike Rack Project, a design competition held this year to help raise the lowly bike rack, the hitching post of the 21st century, to an art form - and make Baltimore a more bike-friendly city in the process.

Bike racks "have lately become a form for artistry and sculpture," said Gary Gresko, a 65-year-old sculptor who entered the competition.

"Previously, they were seen as purely functional and utilitarian. Now people want a more artistic approach. Artists are being asked to step in and design all kinds of objects, practically any aspect of our lives. Whether it's a building or park or book, people are hungry for their input."

As more people begin to leave their cars and venture around town on two wheels, city planners have seen a need for more and better places to store bikes when they're not in use - without adding to the visual clutter on city streets.

Rather than purchase pre-fabricated racks from out-of-town suppliers, leaders of the Station North arts district decided to support artists and other creative thinkers by holding a contest to generate design ideas.

"It's a testament to this generation and these times," said Ryan Carver, a 26-year-old product designer who entered the competition on behalf of his employer, Gutierrez Studios. "Some of the best art is functional. This is a way to be creative outside the boundaries of everyday budgets and demands of the outside world. And it can make a difference."

The response was more than the leaders expected: 79 proposals from 49 designers. Most came from Maryland, including entries from established artists and artisans such as John Gutierrez. Ten students from professor David Lopez's environmental design studio at the Maryland Institute College of Art made proposals. Others came from Massachusetts, North Carolina and California.

Participants said they entered the contest because they were intrigued by the challenge and felt it speaks to a variety of important themes in urban America.

Some brought the perspective of a bike rider, knowing that Baltimore needs to do more to accommodate cyclists. Carver said he recently gave up his car and moved into the city and knows first hand how hard it is to find adequate places to store a bike outdoors.

Others liked the artistic challenge of reinventing an everyday object as public art. Still others were excited by the chance to promote a way to get people to save energy and protect the environment.

Lopez said he was looking for a class project that might give students a real-world opportunity to "get something into the city fabric that they designed and built themselves."

"They were pretty excited," he said. "They took to it pretty well."

Considering the bike rack as subject matter for public art also opens the door to a discussion about the need to rethink the way people move around a city such as Baltimore, he said.

"It's the beginning of a larger dialogue about sustainability and getting us out of our cars," he said. "If you can reflect that in the design, it might have a message to it. That's the approach some of my students took. And then there's the idea of repurposing found objects, being inventive about how to make something out of nothing, giving utility to an object that might not have utility. It all goes back to the idea of sustainability."

The competition was funded by grants from the city and the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund. After reviewing the submissions, a panel of judges will select eight winners, each of who gets $4,000 to fabricate creations for installation somewhere in Station North, 100 acres just north of Pennsylvania Station. The entries were on display briefly last week at the North Avenue Market, and the winners will be announced this week.

"We wanted it to be an opportunity for local artists to have their art on display on the sidewalks - literally - and help identify the area," said David Bielenberg, executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes the district and sponsored the contest.

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