Ron Finch and the divine madness

By Ed Youngblood

(5/31/2010)

 

We're driving through a working class neighborhood in Pontiac, Michigan; not the kind of place where you would expect to find one of America's most storied bike builders and metal artists.  We turn into an ordinary drive by an ordinary house where the only give-away is what was once an ordinary mailbox that has been dressed up with a flame paint job.  But we don't stop there.  We continue down a lane lined with trees and bushes which, a couple-hundred yards on, opens into a fantastic landscape of manicured gardens and brightly painted metal sculptures surrounding a house gingerbreaded with ornaments, doo-dads, and found objects.  I feel like I'm Alice down the rabbit hole, tumbling into a wonderland where nothing is going to be normal. Ron Finch comes out of the house to greet us, extending his hand, thumb upturned to signal that he's going to give you a biker-bro handshake.  His bald head is surrounded by a wild ring of hair, and he has a beard.  I immediately think of Allen Ginsberg.  Given their respective lifetimes of prodigious and ground-breaking creative activity, the comparison seems apt.  Finch has done with custom bikes what Ginsberg did with poetry.  Even when we don't understand what they are saying through their art, we know we are in the presence of genius.

 

Finch, whose motorcycles often seem fearsome and intimidating, is a friendly man who immediately offers us a tour of his property.  It is three and a half acres of young pine forest surrounding a lake that Finch bought after Home Depot wanted and paid well for his old bike shop property some years ago.  This buffer of land and water provides seclusion for the Finches' artistic pursuits; Ron's in paint and metal and wife Ruth's in horticulture.  It is she who maintains the exquisite gardens near the house while Ron continues to exert his wild influence over the surrounding property.  There are paths and stairways fashioned from huge manhole covers, fire hydrants and parking meters planted like strange idols throughout the woods, and even the sculpture of a huge fish skeleton three-hundred yards from shore in the middle of the lake, looking like a whale that died and decomposed just as it broke the surface.  I am in awe of a mind that creates such things.  I point to the path of manhole covers beneath our feet and ask, “When you see stuff like this, do you have an idea of where it should go?”  Finch responds, “That's right.  I can see where it is supposed to be.  I used to drag home lots of junk just hoping to figure out what to do with it.  Now I'm more selective.  I collect just the things that I can see a place for in my mind.”

 

What Ron Finch sees is not what the rest of us see.  Around us are a garden of brightly-painted fire hydrants, the sculpture pig named Porky Plug, made entirely from spark plugs, a towering Big Boy restaurant mascot serving up a motorcycle on his upraised platter, a patio featuring hundreds of old hand tools imbedded in the cement surface, and a rusting man sculpture that looks like the remains of an automobile graveyard stacked nearly two stories high.  But the inside of Finch's shop is even more amazing.  It would put the clutter of any theme restaurant to shame.  Only this is real, representing years and years of assembling found objects that have tickled Finch's fancy, not some pre-planned collection built by a corporate crap broker.  One wall of the shop opens into a breathtaking tower assembled entirely from chunks of blue glass, salvaged from the slag heap of a glass factory in Ohio.  And from the rafters are hanging rows and rows of hand-crank sausage grinders, their bell-like mouths opening downward.  Finch smiles and says, “Someday I am going to figure out how to turn those into carburetors.”  In fact, outside in the yard is a Paul Bunyan-sized motorcycle on which one of these sausage grinders serves as a fantasy carb.  The prototype, as it were.

 

Ron Finch was born in Ferndale, Michigan in 1939.  His mother was a seamstress and made all of Ron's clothes.  His father worked for Chrysler, expediting special orders.  Finch says, “The kids at school made fun of me because I had homemade clothes, but I know mother was one of my artistic influences.  She made beautiful quilts, and I think that's where I began to learn about the combination of colors.  My father never missed a day of work, and I expect my work ethic came from him.”  School did not suit Finch at all, but his parents insisted that he finish and get a diploma.  He recalls, “I stuck with it and didn't miss a day, and for effort I graduated with a D- average.”  Regardless of his academic performance, Finch had already begun his life's work.  As a kid, he customized his bicycles, two Cushmans and a Whizzer.  His first real motorcycle was a 1952 BSA Golden Flash.  It was a beautiful machine, but not beautiful enough for Ron.  He installed a peanut tank and a Bates seat, and gave it a Black Pearl paint job.  In every aspect of his work, he is self taught.  He learned to pin stripe by striping his parents' refrigerator.  He says, “To learn accuracy and control, I would stripe both sides of a sheet of glass, making one image fit perfectly on the other.” 

 

After a stint shuttling cars for Chrysler, Fitch opened Finch's Custom Cycles in 1965, trying to develop a full-service motorcycle business to support his custom bike building.  Ruth says, “At one point we were up to 18 employees.  We even had one guy who did nothing but shipping.  We had a catalog, the whole works.”  Ron responds, “It was killing my creativity.  As the business of running a business got bigger, I could feel my creativity melting away.”  He adds, “This is not how it was supposed to be.  One day I fired everybody and turned all my attention to my art.”  It was not a mistake.  With total attention to artistic vision, Finch began to stretch the boundaries, break the rules, and shatter conventional thinking.  His first work of national notoriety--built in 1969 under commission from a wealthy customer--was Odin's Axle (pictured below), which introduced asymmetrical design.  One side of motorcycle looks nothing like the other, including the front forks.  Over its sheet metal surfaces are crazy three-dimensional patters of “rod work,” a concept that would become more and more important in Finch's later works.  Completed at a cost of $10,000, which was a staggering figure for any motorcycle at the time, the bike made its debut at the Detroit Autorama in January, 1970.  It was so well received, the Detroit Institute of Arts asked to show it at the Michigan Artists Exhibition in December that year, making Odin's Axle the first motorcycle in American history to be placed, as art, in a museum.  Motorcycle World named it “Best Custom of the Year,” and it cemented Finch's reputation as not just a pioneer, but the Mad Hatter of America's young custom motorcycle industry.

 

In his Phaedrus dialogues, Plato recognized two types of madness.  One, he observed, arises from human disease, and nothing good can come from it.  The other he called a “divine madness,” a kind of enthusiasm and artistic fervor that is inspired by a Muse or deity.  “In reality,” Plato states, “Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, which indeed is a divine gift."  Plato taught that there is genuine value in the irrational elements of human life, and that through the artist they can bear fruit with the application of reason and self-control (think of the irrational shapes of pin-striping that come through the extreme control applied by the striper).  Ron Finch is indeed a madman in the Platonic sense.  He refuses to discuss his bikes from an engineering point of view, and he will not intellectualize his work.  Very simply, he says, “I look at things differently than other people.  I see shapes and things that flow. I understand a balance of sizes and shapes.  I know what shapes look good next to each other and what don't.”  His artistic vision arises from intuition and inspiration.  His motorcycles never begin on a drawing board.  They are born from the force of his hands and will over metal.

 

Ron Finch's way of seeing things differently has caused him to repeatedly question the rules.  This iconoclastic behavior can be seen in practically everything he does, but one example is “Loop Hole,” a custom motorcycle whose exhaust pipes curl upward and pass through holes integrated in the backbone of the frame (pictured below).  Displaced by the exhaust system, the fuel tank has been relegated to a pod on the side of the machine behind the rider.  Finch says, “Everybody's exhaust pipes turn down.  Nobody even questions this, but I wondered why they always had to go down.  Why not up?”  He adds, “There are loop holes in everything.  Loop holes in the law, loop holes in contracts.  Why shouldn't there be loop holes in motorcycle design?”  Thus, Finch has literalized an answer to his question, running exhaust pipes the “wrong way” and passing them through actual loop holes in the frame of “Loop Hole.”  Finch's vision is not only unconventional, but often comic.

 

His penchant for whimsy, as seen in “Loop Hole,” and his rejection of symmetry, as expressed in “Odin's Axle,” may have found their ultimate expression in “Trilogy,” surely one of the most bizarre trikes ever conceived (pictured below).  Built around a BSA Rocket III engine, the theme of threes plays throughout the bike, including a row of three fenders to cover a single rear wheel.  Neither the engine nor the rider rest on the center line of the machine.  The engine sits off to the right, just behind the rider, and the cockpit hangs off to the left.  It is surrounded by a structural cage that allows the rider to enter only from the left.  But what is most remarkable about “Trilogy” is that there is no conventional front fork ahead of the rider.  Rather, a strange asymmetrical truss juts out from the top of the cage, over the head of the rider, looping downward in big arcs toward the front wheel.  Operation controls hang from the truss, which is unlike any other motorcycle.

 

Another of Finch's noteworthy creations is “Aorta,” a motorcycle whose frame backbone looks like the large and curving veins and arteries that enter and exit the heart (pictured below).  The frame is even painted like veins and arteries, blending from deep red to blue and back to red again.  The fuel tank is inside the rear fender.  But the oddest feature of “Aorta” is that it is a portable motorcycle; its frame can be unbolted into three units and packaged as luggage. 

 

The radical differences from one creation to the next has enabled Finch to avoid the kind of “trademark style” that has emerged with many famous builders over a long career.  Perhaps only one feature seems to be repeated again and again in his work, and this is the absence of a conventional fuel tank, as with both “Loop Hole” and “Aorta.”  Finch has moved in this direction because he believes that the very heart of a motorcycle--both functionally and visually--is its engine, and this is where he chooses to place his emphasis.  Again, the Finchean question: “Who said the gas tank must sit on the backbone of the frame?” 

 

Having firmly established himself in the custom bike world decades ago, more recently Finch has launched a business called METALife Sculptures, dedicated to the creation of non-motorized art.  Working with found objects--such as fasteners, tableware, gears, sprockets, and castoff tools--Finch creates fanciful plants, birds, and animals, and with these creations he demonstrates his striking paint artistry even more-so than he has with his custom motorcycles.  And because these objects do not have to traverse the highway in a reasonably safe manner, Finch can give even greater expression to the whimsy that is at the core of his vision. One cannot help but smile at his work, such as the “Nut Tree” that grows in front of his shop/studio.  Drooping like a willow, it is composed of hundreds of flexible steel rods with a nut--the fastener type--welded to the end of each.

 

Finch's work has appeared in many galleries and museums, but perhaps his greatest recognition to date as a fine artist came in 2009 on the occasion of  Harley-Davidson's 105th Anniversary when the Milwaukee Museum of Art mounted a one-man show called “Finch and Flash.”  It featured twelve motorcycles and even more of his METALife sculptures.  Finch is a humble man, but he beams with pride when he shows photographs of his motorcycles within the sweeping walls of this stunning museum.  He smiles and adds, “We sold 18 sculptures!”

 

The techniques of Finch's bike building seem to have come together with the elaborate and delicate detail of his METALife sculptures in a new creation called “Outsider,” which is his first attempt to build a sidecar rig (pictured above).  In a conventional sense, the sidecar has no body.  Rather, it is constructed of found objects welded together in the shape of a sidecar body.  From a distance it looks ghost-like with the background showing through.  At mid-range, it looks like a sidecar made of metallic lace.  And at close range it is a study in building beauty from junk.  One can study it for hours, identifying the objects found in its elaborate collection of welded-up gears, tools, bearings, knives, forks, chains, and god-knows-what.  And it is not just a pretty face.  From the biker's point of view it includes the ultimate practicality: a beer cooler hidden in the trunk of the sidecar.  Like many of his previous works, one must look at “Outsider” and wonder, “How can Ron Finch possibly surpass this?”  But he undoubtedly will.

 

His tendency to outdo himself with each successive creation has resulted in an impressive record of awards and achievements.  His motorcycles have appeared on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Oakland County Creative Art Center in Pontiac, Michigan; Tillsonburg, Ontario; the Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, Michigan; the Oakland County Creative Arts Center, the Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio; the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He has had four one man shows in Royal Oak, Wyandotte, and Ionia, Michigan; and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  His METALife sculptures have appeared at the Detroit Artist's Mart, the Scarab Club in Detroit, and the Contemporary Art Institute in Detroit.  He has won two awards from the Discovery Channel, a lifetime achievement award from V-Twin Magazine, and the Prestigious Painter Award from House of Kolor Paints.  He has been to Europe three times by virtue of winning the Rat's Hole Show in Daytona Beach, and his bikes have been featured at shows in Germany, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands.  His story has been told by hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and web sites, and he juggles his creative time with a busy schedule of paid  appearances, about which he remarks with a smile, “It's nice to get paid to party.”  

 

Today, Ron Finch is like Picaso.  Everything he applies his torch or paint gun to becomes instantly recognized as having artistic merit, and he is in high demand.  One would fear that these commercial demands might again destroy his creativity, but today he has Ruth to protect him.  Ron met Ruth at the Detroit Autorama, and they were married in 1968.  As Ron's success as a commercial builder and artist has grown, Ruth has stepped in to handle what has become a full-time business.  She keeps the schedule, negotiates appearance fees, and shields Ron from users, flakes, and groupies.  She also tends his legacy, maintaining files of press clippings and news footage.  She even whips up lunches for Ron's two-man crew, friends hanging around the shop, and the writers and photographers who are allowed down the rabbit hole to visit the Mad Hatter in his wonderland.  About it all, Finch--humble as always--says, “We've had some really lucky breaks.”  This may be so, but breaks are lucky only for those who have the foresight and talent to take advantage of them.  Undoubtedly, Ron Finch's best break was when he decided forty years ago to break from the conventional life, scuttle a going business, and give in to divine madness.

 

Photos by the Author or from Ron Finch's web site.