J. Shia’s Kinetic Kustom World
By Jeff Alexander
Photos by Gretchen Devine, Madhouse Media
Motorcycle craftsmanship remains a highly personal endeavor. An individual may work tireless hours for competition, comradery, glory, or simply to fulfill a business agreement. For J. Shia, her relentless curiosity surrounding the interrelationships of parts and how they interact has ultimately led to creating art in motion. As the founder of Madhouse Motors proves, machinery does not simply appear, it’s the thought and engineering behind it making the static become lively motion.
“I’m fascinated by restoring and building. A racer may focus on their interaction with a machine at x space and other algorithms but I appreciate the kinetic energy of how metal on metal can be manipulated. I love being part of a catalyst for creation and change while learning how something works,” said Shia.
Madhouse Motors began in the backyard of the Shia family. She battled brutal New England weather, wrenching outdoors without a roof over her head while learning the intricacies of motorcycles as colleagues took turns shoveling paths for Shia to move tools and bikes.
“I wouldn’t look back and say it was always a fun time. We used plywood to move bikes during the rainy, muddy weather and took many snow blowing breaks to move around during the winter. It was treacherous and thickened our skins but we had no other jobs! It was our only option,” reflected Shia.
Local authorities forced Shia and her colleagues to shut down the backyard shop, citing the overcrowding bikes as a violation. A 2014 move to Somerville provided instant relief from the harsh weather but again, Shia worked in less than ideal conditions.
“It’s hard to imagine how we did it! The Somerville shop was tiny, only 800 sq. feet. We considered ourselves more professional because we were now working indoors,” she laughed.
Eventually, local authorities shut Shia down, citing a possible fire hazard with the adjoining woodshop.
“They felt our welding was a threat because the carpenters had sawdust on the floor and any sparks from our work could pose a fire hazard,” said Shia.
Madhouse Motors is aptly named due to the shop’s humble yet wild beginnings. Shia stated her family’s home was often referred to as a madhouse and a backyard motorcycle business undeniably contributed to the chaos.
“We moved to Allston before settling into our forever home in Roxbury. We have 6,000 sq. feet to work comfortably in and we’re working on creating an adjoining coffee shop with our store.”
Shia’s unique approach to her craft has her complete visually engaging rides, all worthy of second looks. A highly valuable and prized Vincent restoration and her own Royal Enfield Indian, titled Devil’s Advocate continue earning praise from her peers and publications.
“The Vincent is such an alluring machine and performs well, even today. Vincents are remarkable machines that handle well and their motors are impressively engineered. The Devil’s Advocate build began with my vision of 1930s steam engines; These large and impressive machines that were strong and couldn’t be stopped, a strong machine. I was interested in ‘30s European style racers with low bars and fast looking designs. My last part of inspiration was actually the vibe of a grumpy old woman!" laughed Shia.
She added, “I was trying to express a gritty type of woman that was still independent despite her age. I wanted to adorn the bike with pieces from that era that could convey that idea, even if I may be the only one that understands that part of the bike.”
The bike serves as functional art, adorned with a vintage foot-sizing device, controlled with a left-hand clutch, right-hand shift, and a foot throttle.
Shia laughs stating “It was basically me being a little snot in response to my father saying that it couldn’t be done so I played devil’s advocate in creating it, hence, the name. It’s not actually fun to ride but I wanted to see if it could be done. It’s me learning and changing a historical design to see how it would function today.”
Wonder how Devil’s Advocate is classified as two different brands? Indian first declared bankruptcy in 1953 and the name was sold to British company Brockhouse Engineering. In 1955 the company began selling rebadged Enfield bikes with the Indian name on gas tanks and engine cases. Shia proudly confirms her build is a 1957 Royal Enfield Indian.
In addition to publications taking notice of Shia’s unique work, The Museum of Craft and Design contacted her about their upcoming exhibition opportunity. The San Francisco museum’s Moto MMXX installation, curated by Hugo Eccles aimed to highlight builders that paid additional attention to a motorcycle’s design.
Patrons may believe museums to be havens for static art pieces that hang lifelessly on blank, white walls but Shia’s kustom offered the chance to shatter misconceptions.
“The route I hoped to take was trying to show my work in settings that weren’t necessarily just motorcycle settings. I wanted to see how it would be received and interpreted. It is a functioning piece, it starts, it runs; art in motion, kinetic art,” concluded Shia.