LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Oval Office replica at the Clinton Presidential Library is there to give visitors a look at what they'd see if they could get inside the working area of the White House. For the next several months, the view comes with some horsepower.
The center's new "Art of the Chopper" exhibit displays 30 gleaming, handcrafted motorcycles from around the country. That may be a curious choice for a presidential library, but it reflects American culture in the late 20th century, which Clinton center director Terri Garner says is part of the museum's mission.
"Just as (Bill Clinton) defines the end of the 20th century, so does the chopper," Garner said.
Garner also said that as the library nears its fifth anniversary, the bike exhibit may spark interest among tour organizers and give past visitors a reason to come back. More than a million people have visited the library since it opened.
Portraits of the choppers' creators by photographer Tom Zimberoff are displayed with the bikes. Zimberoff, who has produced two books, "Art of the Chopper" and "Art of the Chopper II," assembled the show.
Zimberoff calls the choppers "rolling sculpture." Each bike is individually made, with makers taking a year or longer to fabricate parts and bring a design to completion. The choppers sell for up to $275,000, Zimberoff said.
"The chopper is an American art form as indigenous as jazz or rock'n'roll," Zimberoff said.
The designs of the bikes cover a wide range, from Pat Kennedy's traditional chopper popularized by the movie "Easy Rider," to the hammered-steel industrial look of Shinya Kimura's "Spike," to "Bettie," by Rick Fairless, a bike that evokes the hippie era and is covered in psychedelic images and slogans. Mike Pugliese's "Knuckle Under" features a set of brass knuckles as a choke handle.
Zimberoff's portraits of the designers are all in black and white, standing in contrast to the bikes themselves.
"For me, it's important and interesting to highlight the artists who make these motorcycles," Zimberoff said. "The choppers have been shown off but not the individuals who made them."
Garner, who has directed the library since November 2007, helped to clean the bikes before they were displayed. She said getting that close to the machinery gave her a surprising appreciation of the design and craftsmanship. She took a particular shine to Kimura's "Spike."
"The more I worked, the more I found it had all the characteristics you'd use to describe a Japanese garden," Garner said. "It's sort of an experience; you just want to be alone — me and my bike."
Some of the bikes are owned by their creators. But one of the challenges of bringing the exhibit together was convincing third-party owners to lend their bikes for six months. Most of the motorcycles were first shipped to Milwaukee, where they were loaded onto a tractor-trailer and hauled to Little Rock.
The choppers stand out from customized bikes beyond the fact that they are built from scratch.
"There are probably only 50 guys on the planet who can make motorcycles of this caliber," Zimberoff said.
There's no shortage of imitators — "cake decorators" Zimberoff calls them. But the craftsmen at the top of the profession set trends in how bikes are designed, modified and accessorized.
"These are the fashion designers who (show their) fashions seasonally. The parts trickle down and become parts on production models," he said.
Most of the craftsmen can't live only by the bikes they build, so they produce some of their parts in limited quantities and sell to dealers.
The exhibit, which Zimberoff hopes to take on the road when the run at the library is over, could change the impression of people who associate customized motorcycles only with gaudiness.
"Some of the bikes that are in this collection are more subtle," said Zimberoff, who once had a chance encounter with Clinton in San Francisco and wound up showing the former president the motorcycle he had at the time.
Still, patrons are more likely to leave talking about Ron Finch's "Odin's Axle," for which each bolt was fabricated to resemble the Norse god's ax. Or maybe Mike Hotch's "El Guapo," which, at rest comes only an inch or so off the ground, but, when started, will engage a system to lift the bike and extend the forks several feet.
Jordan Johnson, a library spokesman, took note of Clinton's relatively recent tie to a motorcycle. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, for which Clinton and former president George H.W. Bush helped raise relief funds, both were among celebrities who signed a motorcycle that was auctioned as part of the relief effort. To get Clinton's signature, the bike was brought to the library once when Clinton was in town.
Thus, according to Johnson, even motorcycles can play a role in Clinton's "global vision of helping people."
"Just don't let him walk through here and sign all these bikes," Zimberoff said with a chuckle.