When John Rubins lists the various influences that inspired him to create Fred the Bike Automaton, the enigmatic quality of art is apparent. While we stand chatting in The Bike Project at the Champaign-Urbana Independent Media Center, Marie Antoinette comes up. As well as 16th century watch makers. John’s architecture degree and his father’s life as an artist. An old foreign film. Writing. John’s students.
“I think the students really pushed me over the edge to build it,” he says.
John teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, and why this would inspire John to construct an automaton that draws a bike, I have to ask.
“I like to challenge my second year students at the beginning of the semester,” he says.
He asks them if they can draw a circle. He asks them if they can draw straight lines. He asks if they know what a bike looks like. They roll their eyes. Yes. Yes. Yes. “Ok,” says John, “then you should be able to draw a bike, right? “
He explains his intention for the exercise: that despite having the tools—circles and straight lines—this doesn’t always mean you can immediately create the finished product, the drawing of a bike. And it is the same with writing. Just because students have the tools—words—that doesn’t mean they can immediately create a story.
“We keep writing because we can’t describe things well,” he says. “How many times have people tried to say the same thing in different ways? I just want my students to understand the importance of craft and be humbled by it.”
He says it does humble the students when he tells them of a computer-less machine that can draw a better bike than they can. He looks up at Fred, and it’s clear that Fred’s simple purpose comforts John. For the past eight months, John has been constructing Fred from wood and bike parts. You almost wouldn’t be able to tell John is the creator because of his reverence towards Fred. There is no sense of ownership, just a little pride and awe. It reminds me that John mentioned a daughter when I first arrived.
But remember, Fred is just a machine that draws a bike. It does not cure cancer. It is not going to take us to mars. It will not lead the world to economic stability.
“It just brings people so much joy,” John says.
Remembering the delighted faces of Fred’s visitors (mine included), John smiles. He’s happy that other people are happy. And then I’m happy that he’s happy. And we’re both grinning like idiots in a brightly lit basement with bike parts everywhere and a machine made of wood and metal and a black Sharpie and nothing in the world seems greater.
“When it attaches to the bike, even more people will see it,” John says, giddy. Soon Fred and John will be riding tandem. John hopes to attach Fred to his box-bike in the next few weeks and ride Fred around during the Urbana First Fridays event on December 2nd, handing out Fred’s drawings to passersby.
We exit The Bike Project’s space to the sunny outside where John’s 9.5 ft. box-bike waits like an obedient workhorse, its empty wheelbarrow-sized container an augury of projects to come. John constructed the box-bike from two abandoned bikes.* It is easy to find outside the English department or the Bike Project on any given day.
“They hate me during the Kranksgiving ride,” says John. This is an event where people compete to buy and haul by bike as much food as they can to the Bike Project, where it is then packed and distributed to families in need for Thanksgiving. “I can carry 200 pounds of food on the bike.”
“That can feed a lot of people,” I say.
“I do what I can.”
*All of John’s bicycle creations will be on display at the IMC sometime in the Spring.