Professor builds Mad Cow bike to raise awareness about environmental issues
Billie Grace Lynn doesn’t get far on her motorcycle without people noticing. After all, her homemade ride is covered with cow bones, so the bike resembles a running cow skeleton when traveling down the road.
But that’s exactly what Lynn is looking for — attention. Lynn, a sculpture professor at the University of Miami, designed the bike to bring awareness to the environmental impact of industrialized meat production and other environmental issues. This summer she took time to travel throughout the U.S., trucking the bike to areas where she could ride with fellow motorcyclists while sharing her story.
Lynn’s mission began when she moved to Miami and took up scuba diving. In doing so, she started to notice the coral reefs dying from acidification in the atmosphere and water.
“It was changing before my eyes. Every year I would go to the same place, and I would see it,” Lynn said. “I got so upset, and I decided I would start making artwork that would address environmental issues.”
During that process, Lynn learned about industrialized meat production, which with its waste produced and transportation costs, is a primary contributor to global warming, she said. One of her goals when creating environmental-themed art was to bring attention to that.
Along the way, Lynn began making pieces out of cow bones. She had collected 30 large boxes of bones about three decades ago from a farm belonging to a friend’s family. One of those cow bone art pieces was a bicycle. Lynn, a vegan, attached a cow skeleton to a bike, riding it around Miami, sharing her message about vegetarianism and saving the environment. It was shortly thereafter that friends told her she should do the same with a motorcycle, so she could spread the same information across the U.S.
Building the Mad Cow
In 2011, Lynn applied for and received a $25,000 award from West Prize, an international art competition. She took an MSF training course, earned her motorcycle license and set out to build a diesel bike that would run on waste vegetable oil, which Rudolf Diesel originally intended his engines to do.
Despite having a machine shop and decades of experience creating kinetic sculpture, the building process — which Lynn thought would only take two to three months — ended up taking two years to complete. Those who worked at the shops where she bought her parts thought a 50-something-year-old woman building a diesel motorcycle to run on vegetable oil seemed a little crazy, so she did her own research — reading books on motorcycle and chopper building — before turning to more hands-on help.
“I just kept taking pictures on my camera, and finally they just started helping me. I just sort of wore them down because I kept going back and then people started helping me, and that’s the only way I could finish it,” Lynn recalled.
Though Lynn wanted to complete the bike herself, in hindsight she found it was rewarding for her helpers and herself for it to be a team effort.
Like her already-built bicycle, Lynn wanted her motorcycle to resemble a cow, to bring attention to the plight of animals raised for food production. Since she had already used all of her 30-year-old cow bones on other pieces, Lynn contacted a veterinarian in Oklahoma, who said he’d send her a new skeleton, along with a skull. The skull he sent had a gnarly head, with crooked teeth and an off-center jawline, which made it ideal to be called the Mad Cow. The bike’s look is a conversation starter, making it easier for Lynn to talk to strangers about her mission.
“The motorcycle gives me a way to have this thing that is sort of striking in appearance and really weird looking and gives me an opportunity to talk to people I wouldn’t normally be able to meet,” Lynn said.
The Mad Cow motorcycle was finished early this summer. After fixing some mechanical issues with her truck, Lynn was on the road. In the first few weeks, she hit Florida, Georgia, Washington D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota, before heading west. Her journey was limited to a couple months, as she had to return to Miami in early August for the beginning of school.
Throughout her journey, Lynn said she not only had the opportunity to talk to strangers about environmental issues, but she also, surprisingly, learned a lot about herself. Lynn was originally scheduled to take the trip with friends, but because of issues with her truck, she started late, leaving her without company. Though going solo was discouraging and frightening at first, it became a blessing.
“It has been really important that I’m alone. I didn’t realize. It forced me to meet so many more people than I would have [if I brought friends],” Lynn said.
She pictures her trip as a spinoff spoof of “Easy Rider.” When she approached a city, she’d start looking for motorcyclists who would be willing to meet with her.
“It kind of takes me out of my comfort zone, but it’s very good,” she said. “It’s exactly what I needed to do.”
Lynn found it important to find trustworthy companions to ride with because of her lack of experience. Originally taking the MSF course two years ago, Lynn found she was a bit rusty when the bike was complete, and she was intimidated by its 700-pound weight.
“I got scared, and I thought I cannot believe that I built a motorcycle, and I can’t believe I’m afraid to get on it,” Lynn said.
Lynn had learned how to ride on a Honda Rebel and was concerned about taking up a larger bike with such little road time. However, a friend gave her a refresher course, and the riders she met along her journey were also helpful.
Though Lynn has enjoyed sharing information about being a vegetarian during her journey, like other motorcyclists, she has also learned about the freedom of the open road.
“On a public level, it’s about environmental issues,” Lynn said, “but on a personal level it’s about overcoming my fears of being alone, riding the bike alone and having people not mess with me.”