NAHBS Part IV: Perfection In Paint

By: Chris Harris Mar 27

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I thought I recognized Joe Bell, or JB as he is known to his friends and colleagues in the craft, in a back corner of the show talking with Dave Hill of Victoria Cycles, and I waited as he finished what I imagined was an intimidating, professional dialogue. Joe is tall with parted gray hair, eyeglasses and large features. Next to him was a young man, his apprentice I assumed. As they left the Victoria booth, I gathered up what counterfeit journalistic courage I have (I am not a journalist to be sure), and excused myself for asking if he was in fact JB. I recall him countering, “Do I look like Joe Bell?” “You look a bit like Bruce Gordon,” I said. Joe laughed and said he sometimes gets mistaken for Gordon, another long timer in the California cosmos of hand built bicycles. I was taken aback by Joe’s tone—it would be a candid interview, then, despite my fears that Joe, who is by all accounts among the very best and most sought-after of painters, would be aloof or affected. He is not. His affectation, if he has one, is humorous and good-natured.

And our conversation was off without me knowing it. I asked how he decided from which builders he would take frames. “They’re the ones who called,” he said. It was becoming clear that I was quite confused in my assumptions. If it is as simple as making a call, why were so few frame builders taking advantage of Joe’s expertise? He’s expensive, that’s why, and though he does retain an assistant (Nick, who does all of the work of preparation before Joe paints), he can only paint frames for so many hours during the day, or in Joe’s case, night—he mentioned he keeps strange hours in his shop, often working late into the night, which is a benefit of being his own boss. His queue has become deep over the years, and consequently, one has to wait and one has to pay for the JB decal on the non-drive side chainstay.

I approached Joe with my little notecard-sized press badge hanging like a talisman from my neck, knowing I could play it nonchalant if Joe didn’t want to be bothered; but it was my intent to meet the man and discover a bit about his personality. If I were sent away, it would be as a pressman, not a foolish, embarrassed admirer. But that is what I am: custom bikes and their aesthetic and functional minutia are what I think about most of the day. And there is no NAHBS without paint. The builders, the ones with the heroic tools of the trade, the ones who partake, even if only approximately, of the machinist tradition in this country, the ones whose names or brands emblazon every gleaming frame at the show, they are the ones who get the awards. Save one. There is a single award given every year for “Best Paint.” But paint is hard to learn, Joe said, after the jokes and false modesty. “It’s harder than frame building.” He described the lack of opportunities for education and the difficulty someone would have trying to start painting. As a craft, the kind of painting that Joe does is much more exacting, much more laborious than the sculptural frame building one. He said that a builder brings a frame to ninety percent and the painter takes care of the rest. It was clear as he spoke that he did not mean that a builder does nine tenths of the work; rather, the painter sauces the dish, gives it character and vitality, and that last ten percent is the most difficult of the whole process.

For all the vats of chemical flux and bottles of acetylene, for all the speck free, back-purged tubes, nothing compares to the toxic hazards and the weird bulb-lit rooms of the painter. I asked Joe if he was superstitious, and while he said that he wasn’t, he mentioned some “psychological” quirks associated with his craft. Spraying Imron day after day in a booth, determined to uphold one’s standard that many have called perfection—that must either amplify one’s sense of humor or pique one’s anxiety. I got the impression that Joe responds with equal parts irony and sincerity when it comes to the challenges of work. “Lack of ambition has kept me where I am,” he said, only half kidding, I think. Yet, it must be a kind of superficial, Wall Street ambition that he lacks. If being good at painting bicycle frames is a modest success, Joe seems perfectly satisfied with it. He mentioned his “twenty-five years of attrition;”and it’s undeniable that Joe feels rewarded for his hard work, even though he prefers jocularity when it comes to discussions about himself. “We’re honored” to work with builders, he said, as I shot a photo of him and Nick. It was, I think, a moment of complete sincerity on his part.

Patterns emerge. People I talked with in Austin began to say similar things and reveal like backgrounds. The builders working with steel form a sort of fraternity whose motto might be something like “precision in art.” And yet I found that it’s the painters who truly can’t tolerate a sloppy shoreline or ugly combination of paint colors. And so it must be said that despite Joe Bell’s reputation for outspokenness and bohemian nonchalance, the work speaks otherwise. Jason Sanchez, who is also tall, speaks so softly at times I had to lean in close to him to hear, as if we were in a gallery. He usually has a couple days growth of gray and blonde stubble on his face, and at the show, he looked a little uncomfortable in his sweater over an Oxford—a little like a kid at some function whose formality is unfortunate but necessary. I had met him earlier in the month at his workshop, a mortuary house converted into retail and commercial spaces. I was there to have a look at my new frame, freshly painted and glossy emerald under the powerful fluorescent lights. As Jason loosened the nut of his fixture and took the frame from is booth, he explained the process of masking the three “Ellis” logos, each of which were a combination of gray and burnt orange on the green field. Jason shares with Joe what he calls a “character flaw:” a dogged urge for perfection. He often speaks quickly and with disregard for his listener’s lack of knowledge, and so there were many times during which I could not perfectly understand the details. I like this type of conversation because I am not condescended to, even if I can’t fully appreciate every point.

And like Joe, Jason has a tremendous sense of humor that nevertheless does not become obnoxious. He can be very sincere, even serious, when called for. When I asked him how he came to painting, he described an interval of his life punctuated by difficulties. In ’92 he was rear-ended in a’66 Volkswagen Kombi bus, and decided that he should repair and repaint the damaged car himself; shortly thereafter, the health food restaurant where he was cooking burned down, and he was left without anything to do. And so he developed his do-it-yourself ethos. He got some training in BASF finishes (and some probably much-needed structure), and he then went into the automotive paint industry. But having talked with him, it’s obvious to me if not to himself that Jason is a solitary craftsman, and I can’t really imagine him working in an automotive shop. Scattered around his workshop are half-finished fine arts projects, and posted on the walls and on the two massive doors that once opened on the building’s crematorium are silk screens and old advertisements. The artistic curios meant to me that Jason needs freedom and the privilege of choosing his own direction that comes from working on one’s own. Like Joe, he takes his time and charges what he must to make the job worth his while. His tradesman’s education gave to him, he said, the idea that there is a right way to paint according to the media one is using, and then there are all the other wrong ways. And “you can know the right way to do something, but can’t do it during the week,” and so you never improve. It’s a mixture of artistic talent and curiosity with observance of rules and continual work.

When I asked Jason which of the bikes in the Ellis Cycles booth most showcased his work—Jason paints only Ellis frames at the moment, though he is interested in working with other builders—he couldn’t decide. It seems he, like the best artists I know of in any genre or medium, likes the still-wet frame best. Without moving from where he stood in the middle of the booth, he pointed at the gorgeous randonneuse that would go on to win “Best Road Bike” honors; he described the way he masked the stainless headtube lugs using language that was both technical and spiked with neologisms of his own coinage—I remember him calling the fringe-like layer of paint that overhangs the tape “falafel.” Imaginative and strenuous both, then, like any good artist or craftsman: “If I shovel a sidewalk, it has to have a sculpted edge,” he said; “I have to round the edge of snow before I can stop.”

Jason then embarked on another metaphor for the way he works: he recalled those wonderful Hubble deep space images, the ones with multiform, multi-thousand galaxies that range in appearance from spirals and discs to pinpoints of star-like light. He said that he enjoys finding pattern and definite shape from what seems like chaos. I imagined him cutting a nice, dark channel in the two feet of snow that had recently fallen on Milwaukee, its walls perfectly vertical, the edges beveled, taking maybe an entire afternoon to do it and not noticing. The thought made me want to drop in on Joe to perhaps witness what else he shares with Jason. As Jason finished his masking disquisition, and with my interview with Joe Bell still fresh in my mind, I asked Jason why he didn’t have some kind of decal or painted-on logo indicating that he had painted the Ellis bikes. He said that he didn’t want his name anywhere on a painted frame (he has recently begun to media-blast his name on the steerer of the frames he finishes, hiding his mark in the headtube), but that the work should and does speak for itself. A Sanchez-painted frame has about it a subtlety that, with close and careful observation, reveals a perfectionist’s attention to the minutest detail. And he echoed Joe’s comment about being honored: “The bike deserves it,” Jason said.

 

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