The art of the Iron Horse
Multi-media exhibit looks back on last 40 years

Local artist Jon Bailey looks over photos to be used in Sunday night’s art installation at the D&SNG museum commemorating 40 years of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Karin L. Becker

Forty years ago, bike racers left Durango and headed for Silverton in the first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. To commemorate that event and its last four decades, local artist Jon Bailey, an avid cyclist himself, was commissioned by race organizers to create an exhibit. The partially human-powered installation, which gives new meaning to “performance piece,” will provide a unique focal point for the post-race party Sun., May 29, at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.

The theme that emerged from the commemorative piece is community, said Bailey. Although not a word that immediately conjures up the independent-minded sport of cycling, Bailey’s exhibit turns this premise on its head. The tribute highlights the communal aspect of this race. “It’s impressive that this community has hosted the bike race for the past 40 years,” he says. With his focus on hosting, not competing, he highlights the importance of how the community of Durango, as Iron Horse participants, volunteers and supporters, has come together year after year to make the race a reality.

Bailey’s exhibit is a multi-dimensional travel through time, starting with that fateful day decades ago when brothers Jim and Tom Mayer brokered a friendly wager. Tom hopped on his 10-speed bike and pedaled more than 50 miles over two mountain passes in an effort to beat his older brother Jim, a brakeman with the train, to Silverton. The race was a quest to show that well-tuned human power can still beat well-oiled machine power.

To fuel the creative fires, Bailey began by rifling through the Iron Horse photographic archives. Not only did the photographs tell a story of the race, but they also showed how the medium of photography itself has changed over the years. The ’70s and ’80s produced delicate black-and-white negatives and textbook shots. In the mid-’80s, the medium morphed into the color slides of local photographer Gunnar Conrad. Any by the late ’90s, the photography changed again into an electronic format, with digital files from Dean Howard and Scott Smith. The photos also show a progression of fashion and technology in bikes, riders and gear. “They show how much has changed but also how much has not changed,” Bailey says.

From the photo archives, Bailey has created a 76-page book, 40 Years of the Iron Horse. The book is all imagery and features both black-and-white and color photos accompanied only by the date they were taken. At the event, prints will be for sale through a silent auction and the proceeds of the book will cover the costs of the installation. Any extra profits, in the spirit of community, will be donated to local charities.

For the exhibit, Bailey chose 40 of his favorite photos and printed them in life-sized dimensions onto light boxes. The photos are squeezed between the engines at the train museum to give viewers a sense of traveling through time. To further make this piece come to life, 40 female cyclists will pedal bikes stationed on trainers. The bikes will be hooked up to generators, and the riders will power the light boxes. Each cyclist represents a year in the history of the race, starting in 1972 with an 11-year-old rider, with the age of the cyclists increasing with each year up to 2011. Furthering the theme of continuity and community, the cyclists, although riding individually, will all be riding simultaneously.

Bailey included an audible/video component as well. “It is hitting all cylinders,” he says. Finally, live music and beer, of course, will be on hand. “It’s important to soften the audience,” Bailey admits in reference to the libations.

To accomplish this exhibit, community involvement was key. The Discovery Museum played a big part in helping mastermind the generators. Now that the logistics of using trainers to create energy have been solved, more bike-powered events may be seen in the future. Bailey envisions a squad of cyclists pedal-powering their way through a movie.

For Bailey art is a constant study. Although this is his biggest exhibit, he has been a part of many random and smaller projects, including the logo and magazine for the Singlespeed World Championships in 2009 and the package design for Chip Peddler. In addition, he has recently transformed The Blue House, adjacent to the Durango Cyclery, into a studio space. Bailey wants to encourage an underground art scene “where there are not a lot of boundaries.”

After this exhibit, Bailey is looking forward to taking a month off before he dives back into the artistic process. “Even in this economic recession and time of turbulent world affairs, art prevails,” he says in closing. •



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