Bike to the Future

"You know the sound of a Harley?" asks David Uhl. "No other engine sounds like that. It's loud. And you can control it, orchestrate it -- you can scare an old lady, get someone to pay attention and get out of the way. You can save your life! It's like playing a musical instrument."

A classic V-twin engine was the inspiration for Uhl's "V-Twin Venom," a Harley-Davidson T-shirt that shows a handful of bikers cruising down a lonely Southwestern road, oblivious to the fact that the pavement ahead has curved up into the sky and morphed into a silvery, futuristic snake/dragon. "I was riding down to the Iron Horse Rally with Peter Fonda and a few Hells Angels," Uhl recalls. "And that one bike was so loud, I seriously worried about my hearing. But that gave me an idea. It was a snake. And then it was fire, or flames, about to destroy my eardrums. I got another T-shirt out of that. We called it 'Loud and Proud.'"

Both "V-Twin Venom" and "Loud and Proud" sell extremely well, as do the rest of the eagle/wolf/engine/bike/motto T-shirt combinations that Uhl and his partner, Daniel Stuckenschneider, have designed for Harley-Davidson. The pair have been working together so long that they're never sure who started or finished a T-shirt or poster or logo -- only that it turned out right. "I'm taking the Harley out of the garage and into the living room," Uhl says. "The whole look has changed. It used to be primitive, like tattoo art. Cool, but not refined. We've taken it up about 200 steps."

But there are bigger canvases ahead: On the eve of Harley-Davidson's hundredth anniversary, Uhl finds himself in the enviable position of being one of the most collectible Harley painters of all time. So he wasn't surprised when Harley headquarters included him in an elite group of seven artists who were each commissioned to create a piece of centennial art.

"Actually, it turns out I get to do two paintings instead of one," he says. "They had nothing representing women. I paint all kinds of people, but I'm known for painting women and Harleys, so they let me go ahead with another painting."

These are not the pneumatic-breasted sci-fi amazons of '80s biker magazines, but deeply nostalgic paintings taken from photographs of women and bikes at the dawn of the hog era. "The Enthusiast," one of Uhl's centennial commissions, is set in 1930. A young woman has just ridden to the post office to pick up the latest issue of The Enthusiast, a biker magazine still published today. Unable to wait until she gets home, she stretches out on her Harley and begins to read. Close inspection reveals the magazine's date: 1953, the year of Harley's sesquicentennial and still 23 years in the future. It's a time-warped in-joke only Harley fanatics would notice.

And there's no shortage of those. Judging from the success of the 28 Uhl prints released so far by Harley, "The Enthusiast" will sell out in less than a year, after which its price will continue to rise. "Ruby," Uhl's best-selling print, originally sold for between $600 and $900. If you could find one now -- and that's a big if -- you'd pay between $3,000 and $4,500.

"Women and bikes," Uhl muses. "It seems obvious, but there are so many obvious things people miss. Like Velcro. Or suitcases with wheels. Why did they take so long?"

"'Ruby' is the most successful Harley-Davidson print ever made," says Louisville art dealer Greg Segal. "The only way we can get 'Ruby' for a client who just has to have one is to call those who purchased them and offer to buy the pieces back at a significant profit."

Until 1993, Segal Fine Art was a Los Angeles-based family venture devoted to wealthy clients. When the business moved to Colorado, the family added photorealist Scott Jacobs to the list of artists it represented. "Scott was a gallery owner in New Jersey at the time, mostly painting portraits of women," Segal remembers. "The only problem with that was, who buys it but the woman who commissioned it? Our sales director, Ron Copple, suggested Scott paint something he was truly passionate about: his bike. It came out incredible."

That summer, Copple and Jacobs set up a small booth at the annual motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota, and found that not only did the prints sell well, but they also attracted interest from Harley executives. The timing was fortuitous. A decade ago, doctors and lawyers started trading in their BMWs for serious hogs, and Harley stood to make serious money from an entirely new group of customers. The company began expanding its product line accordingly.

Harley's fine-art program debuted in 1994. A corporate museum started acquiring original paintings and sculptures, and signed limited-edition prints were licensed and sold through dealerships. Before long, dealers were hosting the wine-and-cheese art openings that continue to this day.

Inspired by a new, booming market, Greg Segal began attending Harley dealer conventions to show off his business's Harley art. At many of these conventions, Uhl was selling T-shirts nearby.

"Finally David was inspired to paint something for me," Segal recalls. "We get submissions from artists on a daily basis, no lie. One out of twenty we'll really look at. But when I saw David's work, I knew this was it." That first painting, "Change in the Weather," shows a late-'40s-era man and woman in front of a gas station, their Harleys temporarily sidelined, a nasty weather front either approaching or retreating in the background.

"You look at her face, and you stare at it; you wonder what she's thinking," Segal says. "Has she had enough for the day? Is she going inside the coffee shop? What's inside the coffee shop? Who are these people?"

Uhl knows only that they're real. He found the people in an antique photo collected by Vinny Terranova, owner of Rocky Mountain Harley-Davidson.

"Sure, I got my own archives," Terranova says. "All the dealers do -- except for these new dealers. They don't know the front from the back of a bike. They're just in it for the money, riding the wave."

Terranova's riding something of a wave himself. As a founding member of UGLY M.C. -- "it stands for Ugly Motorcycle Club, whaddya think?" -- he routinely rides with Hollywood types. He's also the one who introduced David Uhl to the biker world. "Well, yeah, I told him to design a T-shirt, and I got it to the guys at Harley," he recalls. "It was a Sturgis shirt, if I remember. It was the right stuff at the right time." (In fact, the shirt featured a frieze of V-twins carved into Mount Rushmore.)

Terranova's art openings, which often feature Uhl's work, are usually packed "with everyone," he says. "The retired pilots, the lawyers, the bikers. They are the spectrum, and they buy the spectrum. I own David's stuff, too. There's kind of a difference between him and everyone else. The antique stuff; it gets to me. It shows how it used to be."

One of the top ten Harley dealers in the country, Terranova continues to fly a skull logo above his store: a sign of how things used to be and a mark of distinction in tame times. And even though Harley headquarters has tried to move its merchandise away from the hardcore death-and-mayhem image, nothing -- nothing -- sells like a T-shirt with a skull on it, according to Stuckenschneider.

Although he never would have imagined it ten years ago, today Greg Segal attributes 80 percent of his business's earnings to biker art. Not one to argue with success, he's awaiting delivery of his first Harley, a centennial edition.

Two recently acquired Harleys are parked at Uhl and Stuckenschneider's downtown studio, located within shouting distance of the city jail. With 4,000 square feet of hardwood floors, a fireplace, hip furniture, computer equipment and a painting studio, the space is an advertisement for the anything-but-starving artist.

"I never had trouble selling myself," Uhl shrugs. He doesn't have trouble with humility, either. Or with embracing capitalism.

One of seven children, he came from Wisconsin to attend the Colorado Institute of Art on a full scholarship. Unimpressed by the program, he dropped out after two years. "All I wanted to do was draw and paint," he remembers. "They wanted me to do a bunch of other stuff. Anything you really want to know about art, you can find out at a museum. So I went to work as an illustrator."

Before long, corporate clients -- FedEx, Brookstone, even the CIA -- were paying big bucks for the ballpoint technique that Uhl had honed as a bored, doodling high school student. Twelve years ago, he brought Stuckenschneider into the business and began using the first person plural to describe most of the things that happen at his studio. Lately, Stuckenschneider's taken over much of the T-shirt business, but he, too, occasionally accepts illustrating assignments -- most recently, a series of ten drawings for the National Academy of Science.

"We learned about everything around here," Uhl says, riffling through old advertising display pages. "See, I drew the vascular system. I invented all these futuristic motorcycles and dragons and drew them. I drew Denver in the future -- you'll notice Boulder is in the air, because they've figured out how to break free from gravity. I drew a top-secret government helicopter and the bolts for an F-16. If you want to learn it, you can. When I got the painting bug, I went and looked at the old masters. Now I'm studying quantum physics, the direction of consciousness, that kind of stuff. You can teach yourself how the universe works."

It doesn't hurt when your universe is powered by a big, noisy powerful V-twin. "We get no direction from Harley," Uhl says. "It's great. They seem to like almost everything we do. I know they want to see certain things, and that's okay. I don't need to do that abstract stuff, the art that's considered serious, where you have to almost live inside a guy's head to understand his painting.

"I paint pretty pictures," he says. "I know it."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff