Austin Bike Zoo combines theater and pedal-powered contraptions

 Austin Bike Zoo combines theater and pedal-powered contraptions
By Pamela LeBlanc

American-Statesman Staff

An 80-foot rattlesnake. A towering, lime-green praying mantis. Huge butterflies with organza wings.

Even the creators of these bizarre contraptions don’t know what to call them.

“Bike puppets? Zoo creatures?” Jeremy Rosen suggests helpfully.

He’s sitting in the yard of a funky old home off Red River Street, where the biggest of the Austin Bike Zoo’s pedal-powered creations reside. A passing motorist gawks at the sight of the animals, especially the snake, with its six bicycle seats and eyes made of traffic light lenses.

Most of the creatures are built on sturdy, modified work trikes salvaged from the floor of a GM automobile factory. Others are based on pint-sized, nimble BMX bikes.

They’re rideable art — gliding, rolling sculptures that beckon you aboard for a trip. But the ever-evolving stable is more realistic than cartoonish, and many of the bikes are based on specific species: A pink-spotted hawkmoth or a monarch butterfly, not just generic bugs.

“My favorite art is stuff that models nature,” says Sachi Decou, 31, who combines her background in theater and biking through the Austin Bike Zoo venture, wrapping huge metal frames in fabric and using mostly recycled materials to fashion the menagerie. “If you look at nature, they’re often the cleanest, simplest lines. They work very well for structure.”

Rosen and DeCou started the Austin Bike Zoo about four years ago. Today, it is a nonprofit organization and receives about $7,000 in grant money from Austin Community Foundation. The Bike Zoo provides educational programs at area schools and works with the Austin Yellow Bike Project and the Austin Cycling Association to teach cycling and puppetry to area youth. About 10 people run the program, but dozens of artists, bike builders and teachers pitch in, building bikes, preparing performances and encouraging people to get out of their cars and ride bikes.

It helps that one of the Austin Bike Zoo’s collaborators, Juan Martinez, has researched insects for other graphic art projects. “He has a lovely sense of translation from two- to three-dimensions,” DeCou says.

Rosen, 40, grew up tinkering. Now he thinks of himself as a zoo keeper as much as a bike builder. “It’s become a large part of my identity,” he says.

Austin Bike Zoo unveiled its first creations four years ago at the First Night Austin 2005 street festival on New Year’s Eve . The brood has since grown to a dozen creations that wander the grounds of local fairs, star in bicycle-based performances and can be rented for riding during private parties or corporate events.

More than a thousand people have ridden the rattlesnake bike, built for about $2,000 with a cache of salvaged treasures, since it debuted in 2007. The Austin Bike Zoo crew once pedaled it all the way from downtown Austin to the Travis County Exposition Center near Lake Walter E. Long. “Pretty much everybody — unless they are dead — loves it,” Rosen says.

“So much of this stuff we do, it takes people to a different place,” DeCou says, showing off another of the group’s works of art — a furry, over-sized bat with whiskers made from the cord of a Weed Eater. “It’s so fun to watch people’s eyes get really big.”

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