A bike-ride to remember: Documenting the life and art of Greg Curnoe

An artist on a yellow speed bike leads a group of cyclists around downtown London. He brings his bike to a stop and the group gathers around as he begins to tell a story.

The artist is Winnipeg native Paul Butler, perhaps best known for his traveling experimental studio Collage Party. Butler organized a community bike tour last Saturday in London to explore the life of Greg Curnoe and begin filming a documentary about him (with the help of Londonfuse).

Curnoe was a renowned London-based artist who helped establish his city as a creative centre for the arts. He was also an avid cyclist, and often featured bicycles in his artwork. He died tragically in a bicycle accident at the peak of his career in 1992.

Butler is riding a re-creation of Curnoe's favourite bike--the same bike involved in his fatal accident.

Mike Barry of Mariposa Cycle rebuilt the bike. Barry, a long-time friend of Curnoe's, had also built the original. Parts of the original bike frame remain, including a section of frame with the words "CLOSE THE 49TH PARALLEL ETC" scrawled across it in red lettering.

"When Mike Barry met me, he looked me up and down and said 'you're about the same size as Curnoe.' So we built it to the exact same specs as Greg's bike, and it fits me," says Butler.

Butler hopes to raise awareness about Curnoe and the inspiring work he did in the community. The bike tour is an opportunity to revisit spots in the city that were significant to Curnoe and for participants to share stories about him.

Using the bike as a research vehicle to explore Curnoe's life in London, the tour stops at several key locations. The Forest City Gallery, which Curnoe helped to found in 1973, is one of them.

The group of cyclists also stop at the former London Public Library, reported to be the site of one of Canada's first happenings. Curnoe, Jack Chambers and other local artists exhibited their works here.

Call the Office, a live music club that has been around since the late 1860s, is on the list of stops as well. Curnoe used to perform here as the drummer of the Nihilist Spasm Band, and sit with friends discussing important topics over pints of beer.

"I'm here to collect stories and learn more about Curnoe," says Butler. His eyes light up behind his bright blue-rimmed glasses as he talks about the inspirational artist. "I thought bringing all these people together and going on this tour would trigger their memories."

Butler, 38, never knew Curnoe, but became interested in him when friends suggested parallels exist between their works. Both artists share a commitment to engaging the community as well as a love for cycling.

"I'm interested in artists getting involved in their communities and arts activism. I know Greg would have never called himself an arts activist but I kind of see him that way, starting magazines and galleries and getting involved in his community," he adds.

Jason Mclean, a London-based artist who helped Butler plan the bike route, shares many stories along the way. Down the street from Curnoe's Elementary School, Mclean tells the group about how Curnoe's art teachers disapproved of the use of text in his drawings - a technique that is now admired in his most recognized works.

Like Curnoe, Butler and Mclean believe artists should engage in community building. They look to Curnoe's generation for inspiration.

"I think an art world should respond to the whole world and not necessarily just art talk, and what all the curators and critics are saying. I'm interested in the birth of artist-run culture in the '70s and what sparked that. It feels like there is a lack of that kind of energy now with my generation," says Butler.

"It seems like some artists are more interested in recognition and making money than changing the world with art. I want to just try with projects like this to activate...and inspire this new generation. And take some of what Greg was about and inject it into the community."

Butler also envisions the project as a way for Canadians to learn about Curnoe.

"So often in Canada people won't recognize their own talent unless it's recognized outside. People need that encouragement to do a little navel-gazing."

Butler plans to exhibit the documentary and yellow bike in galleries around the country, starting at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He and his associates are also developing a website where people can read about Curnoe, watch the documentary and share comments and stories.

"This is only the beginning of the ride," says Butler.

And the bike fits him perfectly.