"Most people just don't expect to see five people on bikes hauling big brightly coloured trailers around on the road," says Jesse Harrod, coordinator for the Art Bikers. If you've been watching the Halifax streets over the past two summers, you may well be one of those people. Now in their second year of operation, the Art Bikers are six young artists who ride around the municipality with trailers of art supplies to do projects with kids and communities. The Art Bikers are the brainchild of Terri Whetstone, director of the local community arts funding organization 4Cs Foundation. Whetstone was inspired by the "art shacks" in parks---open to the public to make art---that she grew up with in Edmonton, and a Toronto theatre company, Clay & Paper Theatre, started by one person biking around with a trailer full of puppet-making supplies.
It's an opportunity for kids to be involved with creative activities over the summer who can't afford to or otherwise wouldn't register for art classes and camps. "We can go right into the park, to where people are---they don't have to come to us," says Aaron Mangle, one of the bikers. Meeting in their office after a long day that involved biking to Ketch Harbour and back, some dehydration and a couple sunburns, Harrod's and Mangle's enthusiasm is still obvious.
Mangle, a student at NSCAD and avid cyclist, is in his second summer as an Art Biker. Having worked with children previously, he jumped at the opportunity last year to spend the summer outside on a bike, making art with kids in communities around the city. "We set our stakes high, but we're usually happily surprised by the results," he says. The current crew is mainly students, coming from backgrounds in visual art, theatre and urban planning. The bikers had a month of training, planning and obtaining bicycle-safety certification.
"Everyone brings a strong awareness of social justice issues and how that relates to the work they do," Harrod says.
"It highlights a lack of arts programming and the precedence given to sports programming ."
This summer, the bikers have been travelling farther, into some of the more distant reaches of the HRM. They recently spent a few days in Sheet Harbour, and Harrod points out a map of communities they've visited or plan to in all of the vast, half-the-province-covering city limits.
"Today when we arrived we had 10 or so kids waiting for us," says Mangle. It's these moments that they thrive on---and they happen regularly, both are quick to say. The bikers' visits are announced in communities through posters and word of mouth. They arrive and set up for activities they've planned, which often take on a life of their own depending who shows up to play. They aim to plan projects that work with the physical space they're in, ideally using found and recycled materials, and that are collaborative---as opposed to "sitting quietly and making your little craft," as Harrod says.
This summer's projects have included a parade, making large-scale puppets and assembling a mosaic from scrap wood to cover an obtrusive fence in a Lower Prospect park.
"The need and interest for this are obviously there," says Harrod. "I think it's important that the city diverts some of its resources to activities like this and to providing opportunities for young artists." The community reaction has been very positive so far, and this year they've had requests from kids and parents for visits. "In a broader sense, it highlights a lack of arts programming and the precedence given to sports programming ," she says.
It also shows how people aren't quite comfortable with cyclists on the road. In a city notorious for its lack of empathy towards cyclists, how do drivers handle the bikers? There's the usual issue of "normal biking/driver aggression on the peninsula," as Harrod puts it. "Often we run into aggressive driving and generally poor driving choices... compromising the safety of everyone on the road," says Mangle.
"That said," says Harrod, "we also get a lot of drivers honking and waving, expressing their support."
Find the Art Bikers this week in Fairview, Bayers Westwood and the Halifax Common. Call 422-4805 for their schedule.