Salida, CO – One cannot drive into town from 291 these days without passing an imposing giant “chopper” on the well manicured corner across from the skate park. As previously reported in the Mountain Mail, this is the handiwork of Clark Bettenhausen, welder, artist and heavy equipment fabricator. Months ago, Clark came to Salida from his perch in Grant, CO, near Guanella Pass, looking for a place to display what can be most aptly described as one of his brain children, the motorcycle he calls “Iron Horse.” Clark knows Rusty Graves of the Buffalo Smokehouse and Cleora Museum, and so he found his corner in Salida, G Street and Sackett Ave, where “Iron Horse” currently towers to the rooftop.
Through an agreement with lot owner Tom Pokorny, Clark maintains the gravel lot and keeps a watchful eye over both the giant bike and his first such creation, a smaller scale bike on a lighted rotating pedestal called “Angel’s Ride.”
Recently, there has been some controversy about Clark’s occupancy and the small shed he erected to secure his items at night, which may reflect concern over asthetics for the neighborhood.
I asked Clark what his motivation is for sitting beside the installation day after day. “I’ve got four bikes like this across the country,” he says. “I’ve been offered a lot of money for the bike, but I’ve turned it down, because this is who I am, and this is what I am good at.” Clark delights in the numerous people who approach him and the motorcycle at Salida’s downtown gateway and express appreciation and admiration. This gives meaning to his creations and he hopes to use them for a higher purpose. As I talk with Clark, a women approaches and tries to climb aboard Iron Horse for a picture. She hesitates as Clark frowns. “Can I climb this? Is it ok?” She asks, realizing that the artist is present, and this is not simply the public play structure she had first assumed it to be. “Do you think you can?” he replies. She contemplates the barbed spine leading to the high seat and backs down. But Clark’s point is proven. His imaginative machine is like an ambassador to Salida’s art scene, upon which we all take pride. It catches the fancy and imagination of all who pass by, especially visitors. With no subtlety whatsoever, you look at the transformed skyline of Sackett Avenue and are drawn in to the funky, ecclectic vibe of Salida. A people’s artist like Clark willing to sit on a corner in the heat of summer and help give the visual punch that defines our town is a lucky asset to be appreciated.
Clark has dedicated “Iron Horse” as a veteran’s memorial of sorts, collecting small donations and turning people’s thoughts to the bold spirits of his soldier friends. As our conversation progresses, he suddenly entertains the thought of selling his work to some rich benefactor, or scrapping it all together due to the difficulty of holding residence on this corner. Ideally, the bike would stay in Salida supported by any willing community members with the will to donate or rent a small piece of land somewhere downtown where the piece could maintain its impact as an ambassador to the arts. He has left other sculptures around the country in this fashion. Each one is a piece of him. He assembles them from parts – wheelbarrows to trampolines – and still remembers where each part was found. His bikes aren’t built to run, though he is a capable mechanic. They are modeled after hypothetical engines. Trying to get any sort of turning action his would put constraints on the imagination he can let out with his scavenged and donated components, picked for their shape and form. Clark thinks in fantastical ways, but his heart is there is big ways, like his big machines. He truly searches for places where his powerful symbols of imagination and freedom can bring a little joy and recognition to the town, to veterans, or touch people in some meaningful way.
Clark’s traveling show has been all around the west. He has been written up in Motorcycle Rider News when “Iron Horse” lived outside a law office in Fort Morgan. He was featured in the Fort Morgan News when he discussed his other bikes in Nevada and Wyoming, and had hoped to raffle “Iron Horse” off to support children’s charity. You can learn more about Clark’s work and ideas at www.godsride.com. – Jamie Wolkenbreit