When wheels are wings 

"Ride It: Art and Bicycles in Rochester"

Along with the sweetness of spring comes the freedom of flying through the city on two wheels. As soon as the weather sustains 60 degrees for a few consecutive days, bicycles will join automobiles — and the more hardcore cyclists who've been out in almost every condition nature has thrown at us. Through May 15, check out "Ride It: Art and Bicycles in Rochester," the inspiring show now at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, chock full of the Roc's bike history, current culture, and visions of the future.

"I've wanted to do a show about bikes generally for a long time," says RoCo director Bleu Cease, who has organized bike tours to visit murals and sites of historic value for nearly a decade.

click to enlarge Once Dance Co. performed a bicycle-themed routine at the opening reception for Rochester Contemporary's current show, "Ride It: Art and Bikes in Rochester." The art center also provided a bike valet service for cyclists. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Once Dance Co. performed a bicycle-themed routine at the opening reception for Rochester Contemporary's current show, "Ride It: Art and Bikes in Rochester." The art center also provided a bike valet service for cyclists.

In time for May, which is Bike Month, "Ride It" brings together a variety of individuals and organizations in celebration of cycling. This exhibit "is the melding of fine art, documentary practice, and historical display toward a deep, yet approachable — if not somewhat irreverent — engagement with the exhibition's focus," Cease says. By including other institutions, community partnerships, and powerful historical context, the center seeks to underscore "the importance of being open to and aware of different eras; and different fields, specialties, cliques and disciplines, if we are to move this city forward."

The fine art element includes work by painter Cordell Cordaro, whose colorful canvases and drawings on paper are filled with stylized, old-timey bike enthusiasts in dapper duds. Another wall is filled with some of the best posters produced by a variety of artists for the Genesee Center's annual Spokes & Ink bike and poster festival.

Further into the gallery space, two fascinating exhibits reveal Rochester's early integration of bike culture. The adept folks at the University of Rochester's Rare Books and Special Collections Library contributed photographic reproductions and written accounts of the importance of bicycles to women — and the changes it drove in their clothing styles — pulled from the journals of architect Claude Bragdon's sister, May.

Bragdon's contemporary, Susan B. Anthony, also praised the bike for the independence it offered to women: "I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."

Christine Ridarsky, of the Rochester Public Library's Local History Division, put together a display of images, objects, and captions to tell the story of Rochester's network of bike paths. "When bicycles were introduced to urban communities around the country, Rochester was growing," Cease says. "And all of a sudden, Rochester had 40,000 bicycles in the street, in a small downtown area," competing for space with slower cars, scaring horses, and contributing to accidents.

So Rochester created a network of bike trails all around the region. Pictures reveal toll booths, a map shows the extent of the system, and a display case holds a badge with a metal strap to adhere to your handlebars that is analogous to today's E-ZPass.

A nearby, subtler display includes a stack of postcards and an envisioned-history story of "The RochesterGreenway," produced by cycling advocate and RIT professor Jon Schull. "He's sort of a provocateur," Cease says. "He proposed this covered bike trail from RIT to downtown, but rather than just proposing it and going through the normal channels, he wrote about it as if it was already here."

Looping in the round room at the back of the space is a series of short films put together by Scott Wagner, who organizes the annual Rochester Bicycle Film Fest. The line-up includes some documentary-style stories featuring Rochester individuals and institutions such as R Community Bikes, vignettes on bike culture in South Africa, and a clever, entertaining short, "The Man Who Lived on His Bike," by Guillaume Blanchet, of Montreal.

A "Bicycle Tour of Little Known Public Artworks" will be offered Sunday, May 3, in collaboration with photographer Richard Margolis. The ride departs from RoCo at 1 p.m. Visitors are still adding notices to the massive community calendar of cycling-related events located near the rear of the gallery. For more information on upcoming events, visit the center or rochestercontemporary.org.

When you go, don't miss the mini show in the LAB Space. "Hipstory," by Amit Shimoni of Jaffa, Israel, is a witty series of illustrations that restyles politicians and revolutionaries as the tragically cool kids of the modern era.

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