As Gina Rossi tells it, the idea of bike racks as public art came to her in 2009 as she watched bicyclists pedal around downtown and midtown Sacramento looking for places to lock up their cycles.
Riders were securing their bikes to lamp posts and power poles, and even the little fences that encircle sidewalk cafes. "There just weren't many good places to lock up bikes," said the Sacramento metal artist. "I saw this as a way to create public art and have it be functional. It looked like a great market."
Four years later, her hunch is proving out. Fourteen of Rossi's metal sculptures/racks now dot downtown and midtown, from giant bottle openers at New Helvetia Brewing Company on Broadway to a fanciful dragon at Shoki Ramen House on R Street. Others include the letters K, A and Y on the K Street Mall, and sculptures depicting a giant fork, a martini glass and a guitar outside of the Harlow's and Centro restaurants on J Street.
She's currently designing nine others for customers as close as midtown and as distant as Lodi. Building each rack takes about a month, from sketching out the idea to installation, Rossi said.
The racks, which can cost between $600 and $2,000, are usually paid for by the businesses they serve or by development groups such as the Capital Area Development Authority or business associations such as the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the Midtown Business Association.
David Gull, owner of New Helvetia, said he planned to install bike racks when he opened his operation several months ago, "but going with plain vanilla bike racks wasn't an option when we had an opportunity to do something cool and funky."
One of his business partners had seen Rossi's work on R and J streets and recommended her to Gull. Gull showed Rossi a vintage bottle opener from the historic Buffalo Brewery in Sacramento on which New Helvetia is modeled.
"She said, 'I can do that,' and she ran with it. ... The design is specific to our business and location. We're very happy with Gina's work," Gull said.
With no formal training in art, Rossi said she was self-taught from early childhood, using small household items to create art projects. "It used to make my mother laugh," she recalled.
Her education stalled when she left high school in her freshman year to help care for her ailing mother and a brother with cerebral palsy, But she earned a GED in 1997, became a medical assistant with Kaiser Permanente and eventually became a licensed vocational nurse.
She later added a business degree from the University of Phoenix to her résumé.
All the while, Rossi said, she never shed her affinity for art, and eventually enrolled in metalworking classes at the Crucible, an industrial arts cooperative in Oakland.
She followed that up with classes in Sacramento to earn an American Welding Society certification, allowing her to teach welding.
With teaching in mind, she opened Rossi Sculptural Designs in a former auto paint shop in midtown last year. There, amid bins of scrap metal, torches and tanks of welding gas, she fashions decorative metal sculptures, and teaches welding to students ranging from young couples to retirees to children.
There's also a scattering of glass art and even a 7-foot-tall sculpture of a basketball player commissioned by a hard-core hoops fan.
Though Rossi now earns enough from her artwork to scale back her Kaiser job to 20 hours a week, her first bike rack was a freebie. To prove her concept of racks as art, she created a music-inspired rack and installed it at Gallery 2110 on K Street in 2009.
"We loved Gina's innovative idea of combining art with function in bike racks," said Clare Bailey, who was owner of Gallery 2110 at the time. "We also loved that this concept supported a healthy lifestyle by encouraging bikers to ride knowing they would have a safe place to secure their rides," Bailey said in an email.
Rossi isn't worried about running out of customers any time soon. As the bike culture grows in Sacramento, so, too, will the demand for bike parking, she said. She's already contemplating conversion of the ubiquitous U-shaped bike racks around town into something more aesthetically adventurous and more functional.
"I'll just go to the business owners and say, 'Let me do a face-lift on your bike racks and really give them an artistic flair.' "
Contact Clint Swett at email@example.com.