Updated: Sep 2
Destroyer, El Knucklehead, Pea Shooter, Captain America. If these names mean something to you, then a ride—preferably on a motorcycle—over to the Cultural Center of Cape Cod is in order.
“Art on Two Wheels: A Century of Motorcycles and Related Artwork,” featuring a collection of 42 restored motorcycles (mostly Harley-Davidsons), along with a large assortment of related artwork and collectibles, is on view through November 24 at the Cultural Center. The extensive show takes up the center’s main floor and three first-floor galleries.
In conjunction with the show, the center put out a call to artists to respond to the theme of the open road, resulting in a show of paintings, photographs and even a motorcycle-themed art quilt that spills over into the Cultural Center’s education wing.
The bikes, artwork, posters, vintage riding suits and more are all the property of the Cape’s own David McGraw, who has collected and restored bikes for more than 40 years.
The show is reminiscent of the Museum of Fine Arts’ 2001 show, “Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar,” and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the antique cars at Heritage Museums & Gardens.
Are motorcycles art? That’s a subjective question. If you think that one of the purposes of art is to make us see something in a different light, then seeing these bikes, polished and shiny, beautifully restored with their bold lines and bright colors, and arranged on the floor of the Cultural Center, results in the answer being yes: it makes you see the bikes differently. I suspect many people will come see the show because they themselves ride bikes, or have ridden them, and the show will hold a nostalgia factor for them. Or maybe people, even those same people, have experiences of restoring bikes themselves and have an interest in seeing these bikes, the oldest of which dates from 1915.
But for the average person, myself included, who have little experience with motorcycles, the bikes still resonate. Maybe it’s me. I have a penchant for vintage diners, polished steel and neon, and not just because I find that look beautiful, but also because they speak to me of authenticity, American ingenuity and promise. A run-down diner can often be returned to its former glory; an old motorcycle, can as well.
Motorcycles, like diners, also speak to the notion of the open road. Of travel and adventure but also of the possibility new beginnings. If one can restore a run-down motorcycle, then maybe, likewise, one can reinvent one’s self. These are some of the universal feelings that motorcycles evoke.
From a graphic design point of view, even the lettering on the bikes is worth a close look. How many different designs were used for the Harley-Davidson logo? How did that lettering change over the years?
The shapes of motorcycle seats and handlebars have also evolved and changed; the bikes in the show display many different styles.
Memorabilia in the show includes posters of bike competitions, from scrambles to hill climbs, large events at established race tracks, and events held at fairgrounds.
Along with the earliest bikes, most of which were unobtrusive browns and army greens in color, were several harrowing propaganda posters encouraging the use of motorcycles in highway patrols to curb the multitude of fatalities that were befalling children in traffic accidents at the hands of negligent automotive drivers. These stark posters with bold imagery are also appealing for their design. Later posters on display in one of the gallery’s side rooms feature the psychedelic lettering and neon colors of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Looking both futuristic and vintage simultaneously, the exhibit contains a Harley-Davidson 1970 XLCH Land Speed Streamliner, a vehicle that looks more submarine than motorcycle.
A three-tiered display case holds tin and cast iron toy motorcycles, many complete with tiny riders and a display of old oil cans and other maintenance items.
The show contains several posters from 1969’s “Easy Rider,” perhaps the most well-known motorcycle movie of all time. It also contains a Captain America, the type of chopper ridden by Peter Fonda’s character, Wyatt, in the iconic film.
A raffle in conjunction with the show includes the chance to win a hand-painted helmet donated by Harley-Davidson USA, a basket of wines, wine glasses and other accoutrements, and a 1,000-plus-piece motorcycle LEGO kit.
If you’ve never been to the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, let “Art on Two Wheels” be your excuse to check it out. The original building is the former Bass River Savings Bank, restored by a group of dedicated volunteers in the early 2000s. The education building, set behind the original center, opened in 2016. Along with hosting gallery shows, the center offers art and culinary classes, lectures, poetry readings and workshops, plus evening concerts, performances and sober socials.
“Art on Two Wheels” was seeing moderate traffic the day I visited—a crisp, midweek afternoon in September. Admission to the show is $10 and includes viewing the newer rooms in the education building.
The Cultural Center of Cape Cod, 307 Old Main Street in South Yarmouth, is open Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM, Saturdays from 10 AM to 5 PM, and Sundays from noon to 5 PM.