Artist Murray Favro and his bicycle reimaginings are strange and beautiful

“That’s the trip they take you on — they suggest,” says Murray Favro, an acclaimed Canadian artist, sculptor and, apparently, something of a machinery whisperer. “You’re a part of it when you’re doing it, but you have to be outside to see that. Your actual influence, I mean. If you and I were to make the same thing, it would look different. That’s the part we don’t really have control over. The thing itself suggests how it’s made.”

Favro has been an artist for about a half-century. Since the 1960s, the Governor General’s Award winner has used his mixed-media sculptures to explore how we use technology — and how it uses us, themes that couldn’t be more relevant today.

A recent show, commissioned when Toronto and surrounds hosted the Pan Am Games, features a number of Favro’s unique takes on the humble bicycle as well as his Lathe, which includes the repurposing of bicycle sprockets.

If the fixed-gear bike loving, straight razor using urban neo-luddites were looking for a guru to guide them in their quest to reclaim archaic technology, one would only have to look as far as Favro — minus the skinny jeans, of course.

“I look at technology from new angles,” he says, over the phone from his home in London, Ont. “My viewpoint of technology is not necessarily that [these devices and techniques] go obsolete. They are always around, they evolve, like blacksmithing which has turned into welding and machine shop. Just don’t throw it away because there might still be something there. That’s my attitude. I find they’re stimulating to think about.”

One of the first bikes Favro completed, which has the pedalling mechanism moved back over the rear wheels, originated as a response to a challenge issued by the late Greg Curnoe. The London artist, a contemporary of Favro’s, also had a fascination with bicycles.

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“He was always telling me about buying bolts and stuff that weight a fraction less than the last bolt he was taking out, and I saw it as kind of a waste of time,” says Favro. “So I said, If I made a bicycle, I’d make one really different where you’d pedal at the back so you’d be more streamlined when you rode it. He said, Okay, make one. He challenged me, so I did.”

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For his most recent bicycle, the artist replaced the typical chain with a lever. Try tooling around Brooklyn, or Queen West, on that.

Born in Huntsville, Ont., Favro moved to London to attend the arts program at H. B. Beal Technical and Commercial School. He was soon part of the growing London Regionalism movement alongside such luminaries as Curnoe, Jack Chambers, Tony Urquhart and Ron Martin.

Around the same time, Favro also helped form the legendary Nihilist Spasm Band, an artist collective featuring homemade instruments and absolutely no interest in playing traditional music, The band celebrated its 50 anniversary in September with a special concert at Museum London.

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Soon after he began working as an artist full-time, he moved from painting to sculpture. Early in his career, Favro tackled more large-scale projects such as his monumental Half-Scale Sabre Jet (1965-68), Synthetic Lake (1973-74), which attempted to mimic the rolling waves of Lake Huron using projection, and a wave machine he constructed, as well as Van Gogh’s Room (1973-74), a projected recreation of sorts of Van Gogh’s famous painting The Bedroom.

Now in his mid-70s, Favro is finished with the big works, concentrating instead on more human-scale machines. But his ideas on technology remain consistent — and have proven to be prophetic.

“People have a long way to go; they lose themselves in the technology,” he says. “I do not lose myself in it. The best artists are able to step back and observe it.”

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