Finding a balance between art and motorcycle maintenance

J. Shia first rode a motorcycle when she was about 8 years old. Because she was small, her father – a jack-of-all-trades with a fondness for bicycles – got her started for her and leaned her against a tree so she could climb and ride. It worked fine until it was time to stop the bike and get off.

“To get down, I had to line the bike up with a tree, and I was always missing and hitting my head or falling,” Ms Shia said. So she would continue. His two older brothers, waiting their turn, grew impatient. But even though she loved to ride horses, she was not greedy. “I was too scared to stop at the tree,” she said.

Ms Shia, now 31, still has the old Honda and can still barely touch the ground when on it. But she no longer needs to stop riding. She owns Madhouse Enginesa 6,000 square foot motorcycle shop in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.

Madhouse performs routine maintenance and repairs, refurbishes vintage bikes, provides winter storage and completes customization projects. Ms. Shia also maintains a studio there, where she creates artistic yet rideable motorcycle sculptures.

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

“She knows everything about motorcycles. She basically built the biggest vintage motorcycle restoration business in New England, and she’s completely stuck,” he said. “But she literally started in a backyard.”

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

Through trial and error, Ms Shia got the bike working and she rode it “to kind of show off”, she said. When people asked her how she acquired it, she replied, “I fixed it myself. I am a mechanic.

People started asking her to fix their motorcycles, and what she lacked in skill, she made up for in courage. “I would give people my parents’ address and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, come out in the backyard 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 the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), one of America’s oldest art schools and the only state-funded independent. But the summer before his freshman year, a former girlfriend got pregnant and couldn’t care for the child, so Ms. Shia volunteered to take responsibility for the baby, a boy named Audai.

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

She continued fixing bikes throughout college, doggedly honing her skills and, when perplexed, calling in trained mechanics. She attended classes full-time, arranging with teachers to arrive late or leave early to take care of Audai, and relying on her family for childcare.

“One time she had to bring Audai to school, so she paid one of the girls in the photo lab to watch him in the hallway for a bit,” said Gretchen Devine, 31, Ms Shia’s partner. for 11 years and a classmate of MassArt.

“I came out of the darkroom and saw Audai, who was about 4 months old, playing in a cardboard box, and he was the cutest little kid you could imagine,” Ms Devine said. “So I sat down and started playing with him, and J. came out into the hallway. She will identify this moment as when she decided to try to reunite. It was a bit like that. But I met the kid first, technically.

Ms. Devine was immediately drawn to Ms. Shia’s creative ambition and talent. “I have never met someone so motivated. Although I guess it’s not just driven by self-motivation. It’s motivated for Audai,” she said. “She wants to see him get every opportunity possible.”

This tenacity has served Ms. Shia well, but it hasn’t always brought her joy. “My schedule was crazy, so there were many years where working on motorcycles was kind of an act of desperation, and my family and I didn’t have such a positive connotation with it,” he said. she declared. “I worked in two layers of Carhartts, in the dirt, outdoors, for most of my teens and 20s.”

Opening her first indoor boutique in 2009 was a boon for Ms. Shia, as she was able to create her own space. This provided a sense of comfort and security for herself and her customers, many of whom – because of their gender, identity or sexuality – felt excluded from the larger biker population.

“I definitely met bikers who weren’t as open to the trans community, and that was very off-putting,” said Krys LeMay, 32, a sound engineer who bought Ms Shia her first bike in 2014. and remains a loyal customer. “But it makes the connection I have even more special. Because I’m so welcomed with J. at Madhouse, I don’t need to go anywhere else.”

Ms. Shia hopes to expand that sense of community by building a cafe in Madhouse and opening it this summer. She and Mrs Devine also hold an annual motorcycle show in Cambridge called wild rabbit. This year’s event on Saturday is expected to attract 2,000 people.

But one of the most powerful ways Ms. Shia found to transcend the workday was to custom-design motorcycles — for herself. It all started in 2017 when she was asked to show off a bike at an event called Motorcycles as Art. Although it seemed like the perfect opportunity to merge her art school aspirations with her current vocation, she resisted, doubting 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 whatever I want,'” she said. said “And it was that aha moment, where I finally, for the first time, after a lifetime of being around motorcycles, designed a bike that wasn’t for a customer.”

She 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 thereafter she began to focus more on creative projects. This resulted in a complex multi-year construction inspired by “Swan Lake”.

“I wanted to do a project that was two bikes and have them mirror each other,” Ms. Shia said. “The same weight, the same length, the same height, the same year, the same brand, the same model. But polar opposites. Like the Black Swan and the White Swan from the Tchaikovsky ballet.

She sourced vintage pieces, as she always has, on eBay — microscopes, pencil sharpeners, rotary phones, juicers, musical instruments — and grafted them on, each piece serving a function. The bikes 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 worked with eBay Motors and has been presented in a recent campaign called “Let’s Ride”.

Despite all of her online acquisitions, Ms. Shia recently whittled down her personal collection of motorcycles from “60 or 70” to “20, 25, maybe 30? ” She laughed. “I try 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 really interested in becoming a mechanic, and that’s the best thing for me,” Ms Shia said. Although he’s comfortable on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, she says, he’s expressed an interest in becoming a teacher or a veterinarian.

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

“She always wanted a bike at the Guggenheim, one of her motorcycle sculptures. And I think she’s going to get there,” Ms. Devine said. “Everything she thinks about, she actually does.”