By Peggy Mackenzie
Somewhere on a hillside above Alderson, artist Mark Blumenstein has a huge pile of metal pieces, collected presumably over the years, heaped at the door of his workshop. Rusty gears, coils, rods, wire and wheels. Any sort of odd-ball metal objects can be found there… maybe. His workshop is literally cluttered with finished metal sculpture pieces – the array is impressive if not staggering – and there are more out in the fields, moving and swaying in the light breeze. The man is clearly in his element.
On a visit to Blumenstein’s metal workspace one misty morning, I was accompanied by John Francis, a member of the local bike club. Over coffee I learned the story behind the installation of the bike rack situated in front of the Greenbrier County Visitors Center on Washington Street, and that it actually began with the bike club members’ desire to create a memorial to Jim Cooper, an avid cycling enthusiast and generous supporter of all things outdoors, who died in 2012 of pancreatic cancer.
His death was a great loss to the community, John said. “He was taken too soon.”
Jim Cooper’s whole career was all about the outdoors – and he especially loved bikes. John maintained that to Cooper riding was a lifestyle. He kept a huge assortment of tools and bike parts, and had up to 15 bikes stored in his basement. He was familiar with cycling manufacturers and brands, and was generous in sharing his knowledge and tools. He loved to repair bikes and could put a bike together from scratch for anyone who needed one. Cooper also created walking and cycling trails for others to enjoy. His enthusiasm for life was contagious and without trying, he was viewed as a mentor to many fellow cyclers. Much of Cooper’s collection of tools and parts, in fact, were given to Merrick Tracy for the benefit of the Hill and Holler Bike Shop.
“Jim was unconventional,” said Francis, which sparked the idea for an unconventional bike rack design as a memorial, and in turn was what brought Blumenstein into the story.
Inspired by the story of Jim Cooper, Blumenstein wanted to use materials which tendered a significant meaning to the project. He said his preparation began with considering the way settlers first arrived in West Virginia, by way of wagons over the mountains. “Wheels,” he said, “are still the main way we get around.” Wheels became his visual starting point, which soon evolved to include birds and mountains.
To get the project off the ground the bike club had to find a way to finance it, and here Blumenstein was helpful in suggesting they hold a raffle for a small sculpture piece he would create. The club agreed and as a result $3,200 was raised.
Francis said when he saw the first completed piece, he was surprised and delighted at its intuitive flow of energy. Blumenstein knew then he was on the right track. Certain guidelines, Francis said, were added to insure the bike racks were strong enough to withstand heavy use and abuse, and safety was also a prime concern. Once completed, the racks went to Precision Electrics in Beckley where Alan Smith processed them with a powder-coated metal veneer yielding a rugged, enduring surface.
Now came the question where to place the bike racks – or rather where to display this fine example of functional art. The Green Space was an obvious first consideration but ultimately did not yield the desired visibility.
Then the Greenbrier County Visitors Center’s (CVB) sidewalk repair and beautification project appeared on the horizon. Francis approached TAG Galean,who designed the street scape for the project, about adding the bike racks as an element within the overall scheme. Galean, through the auspices of the Lewisburg Foundation, has been responsible for much of the beautification elements of Lewisburg’s downtown area. Galean’s vision is long-range and supports cultural opportunities which attracts and welcomes visitors to our town.
The CVB had to be wooed and once won, now has on display the the first of what is hoped to be many communal functional art pieces in Lewisburg. The CVB, as a hub of the hospitality business, is to be lauded for supporting the installation of public art in Lewisburg, and by positioning a bike rack in full view of the public elevates cycling as a recreation.
Blumenstein’s unconventional metal sculptures is dedicated to the memory of Jim Cooper, who may yet inspire riding as a lifestyle.