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FREEWHEELING ART

The Baltimore Sun

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.

"We also have to think about practicality," he said. "Are the racks going to stand out or get in the way? Will the bikes be secure? We have to consider form and function."

Bounded roughly by Greenmount Avenue, 20th Street, Howard Street and the Amtrak corridor, Station North is a state-designated district that contains a variety of cafes, galleries and arts-related businesses, including the Charles Theatre and Everyman Theatre. Mayor Sheila Dixon this fall unveiled a plan to make it more of a regional destination by expanding Penn Station and adding hundreds of residences, stores and offices, representing a potential investment of $1 billion.

Organizers say Baltimore's bike-rack project was inspired largely by Louisville, Ky., which launched a similar competition in 2003. Other cities that have engaged artists to design bike racks include Austin, Texas; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Portland, Ore. New York City recently installed nine racks designed by Talking Heads front man (and onetime MICA student) David Byrne, including works shaped like a dollar sign, guitar, coffee cup and high-heeled shoe.

Nancy Haragan, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and a board member of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., is from Louisville and suggested that Station North mount the competition as a way to underscore the area's emergence as a center for creativity.

With a project such as this, "we're sending a message about the kind of community we think we are and we aspire to be," Haragan said. "If you're from out of town and drive around and see these, you might think, 'That's cool.' "

Unlike the cow sculptures that appeared in Chicago in 1999, she added, "it's functional, and it's not just one thing."

Once the winners are announced, Bielenberg said, Station North board members and others will identify sites where the racks can be installed. He said the goal is to have the winning designs fabricated by March 1 and put in place shortly afterward.

Leaders of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore have said they'll look at the designs and possibly choose one or more for the center city as well.

Some of the designers wrote statements or poems with their submissions, showing how passionate they are about the project and what they think it could mean for Station North.

"Growing up in Baltimore, I have always wanted to see the area around North Avenue be restored and revitalized," artist Andrea Dombrowski wrote with her entry. "With this bike rack project, I can see little by little that my wish is becoming a reality."

inventive ideas

The Baltimore designs touch on a wide range of themes and ideas. They break down roughly into several categories:

Bike Rack as message board:: Benjamin Wilkes Howard suggested racks that spell the name of the street they're on, such as N-O-R-T-H for North Avenue. Others spelled B-I-K-E, in various scripts.

Baltimore-centric bike racks:: Scott Cawood proposed bike racks that promote Baltimore and some of its more famous residents, with names and faces at the end of each rack. On his list of honorees: Ogden Nash, Upton Sinclair, Tupac Shakur, Frank Zappa, John Waters, Barry Levinson, Billie Holiday, Edgar Allan Poe and H. L. Mencken. For other parts of the city, he suggested Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas, Ray Lewis, Francis Scott Key, Natty Boh and Suzie Utz.

Bike Racks as urban sculpture: : Many of the artists proposed abstract forms, like loops, Mobius strips and fragments of geodesic domes. Baltimore Glass Works proposed round racks made with hand-blown Venetian glass.

Some took on animal or vegetable forms. There's a crab, a bird, a bull, a caterpillar and a "tubular, green, six legged" walking stick.

There are tree racks, leaf racks, rock racks, Earth racks, moon racks, star racks. Racks are shaped like hands, feet, legs and, just in time for the holidays, antlers.

Eco-friendly bike racks made from recycled materials: : More than a few proposals called for bike racks made from recycled materials, including old car parts, railroad spikes, old bicycle frames and tires. Liz Ensz proposed using the front end of a 1960s Cadillac. Inna Alesina proposed reusing damaged sign poles, painted in bright colors. Steve Ziger suggested using handguns taken off city streets and putting them back on the streets, welded in a circle.

Bike racks as literal street furniture:: Kallie Sternburgh proposed a bike rack that doubles as a chair. R.L. Croft proposed a "Maryland Mensch Bicycle Bench." Sangit Roy drew a series of racks that came together to form the shape of a beached whale that people could sit on.

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