For the first time, Willie G. Davidson offers a look at the collection that inspired his legendary Harley-Davidson designs.
In the painting a thunderstorm is breaking over the rugged Wisconsin prairie, and you can feel the saw grass bending low before the force of the oncoming wind. “This is one of my favorites—I’ve always been inspired by the Wisconsin landscape,” says the artist, leading the way past a wall adorned with more of his works. There is an abandoned pickup truck rusting in a patch of weeds. A fishing boat bobbing at anchor. A still life. A barn. A tractor plowing a field. The subjects in these and countless others are commonplace, but the brushwork is deft and the colors are vibrant. “I like to wash a big area on my paintings and then drop in the color,” he continues. “The result is an action between the paint and the wet surface that I think is just exciting.”
Watercolors are not the artist’s only medium; he also works in three dimensions, creating shapes bright with chrome, bristling with cooling fins, and evoking the rumble of motors. “I think of them as rolling sculpture,” he says with a grin.
So does the rest of the world. For decades, William Godfrey Davidson—better known to his fans around the world as Willie G.—was the senior vice president and chief styling officer of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and the creator of some of the most exciting machines on the road, examples of which gleam in virtually every room of the massive, rustically timbered home Davidson shares with his wife, Nancy. Everywhere there are sleek café racers, touring bikes, sportbikes, highway cruisers, Low Riders, lightweight bikes, and macho Fat Boys with solid disks for wheels. “A lot of guys would put these in a barn somewhere,” he says. “I like to live with them.”
Interspersed with the motorcycles is the Davidsons’ spectacular collection of Americana and folk art: nostalgic prints, antique dolls, brightly painted carousel animals, toy cars, prints from bygone ad campaigns, American Indian artifacts, saddles, ancient pottery, motorcycle club pins, movie posters, and studded black leather biker jackets, vests, and kidney belts. There is also a Native American canoe long enough to accommodate a dozen warriors and a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest, giving the cavernous Davidson residence the feel of a natural history museum. “This place has evolved over a long period of time,” Davidson says. “We’re now at the point where we’re running out of space.”
Of course, it takes a lot of space to fully tell the Harley-Davidson story. It is not just about motorcycles; it is about society, style, and the American passion for the road.
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