Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kat Ramsland unveils "1000 Ghost Bikes"

by John Greenfield

Chicago artist Kat Ramsland opened her exhibit “1000 Ghost Bikes: A New Chicago Monument,” along with bike-related works by Jay Strommen, Nancy Anderson and Elizabeth Groeschen, on Saturday, June 6, at Lill Street Arts Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood.

Inspired by the Ghost Bike movement in which white-painted bicycles are installed at bicycle crash sites, as well as the Ride of Silence memorial bike procession, Ramsland asked Chicagoans to dedicate a miniature ceramic white bicycle to a loved one who was hurt or killed in a crash. She received dozens of stories, many of them heartbreaking, and assembled the bicycles and text into an installation that honors the cyclists and draws attention to the need for safer streets.

Ramsland met with VWYF at a Ravenswood coffee shop and discussed how her interest in public policy as well as a family crisis fueled the project, despite the fact that until recently she didn’t know how to ride a bike.

Tell me about your background with cycling and your background with art.

It’s probably easier to start with my background in art. I’ve been making art and paying attention to the art world for pretty much all my life. I graduated from DePaul with a major in photography and a minor in sociology. I’m really interested in public art and public policy. Then I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for grad school and I’m in the program for the masters of art education. This is my thesis project about how public art can change public policy.

Any art is a direct response to cultural events. Right now I think we’re in a really exciting time where there are people who are emerging from the art world, or even outside the art world, who are incredibly educated and incredibly conscious of what’s happening socially, as far as environmental concerns, economic concerns, and obviously the war is a big issue these days. One of the biggest movements I’ve noticed recently is bicycling culture. In just about every city you’ll find cyclists who are devoted to being year-round commuters.

And with bicycling comes inherent problems such as the vulnerability and visibility of a cyclist on the road. Last summer I went out to Portland and I spoke to Carl Larson, who started Ghost in Portland about eight years ago. I asked him how he felt they had changed the political landscape and city infrastructure. I had already gone into this interview knowing that Ghost Bikes had become an international movement. You’ll find these memorials all over the world. So I was really interested to learn that Carl had given up his duties as the Portland Ghost Bike guy and had given them to someone else.

He was convinced that for the most part Ghost Bikes was unsuccessful. It was really surprising. I said, “How can you say these are unsuccessful? You just told me that your city officials apologize when they have to move one or take one down, even though they’re not publicly sanctioned.” He said, “The average commuter still doesn’t realize what it is, that a Ghost Bike is a monument marking the site where a cyclist has died in a car collision.” So there’s an issue of them being too subtle.

There’s also an issue of people assuming that biking itself is dangerous, not the cars that hit them, when bicycling is doing so many great things for the political landscape. It’s keeping people healthy; it’s helping them live with a minimum carbon footprint, and it’s not feeding this car fetish America has, which is a huge economic factor.

So I decide that for my thesis I was going to do an art project and not just going to have a regular gallery show. I wanted to demonstrate how public art can change public policy. There are a lot of inherent issues in this but primarily I wanted to tackle the issues that Carl had mentioned, of Ghost Bikes being too subtle. So I decided to make a monument of a lot of Ghost Bikes with a bigger, more visible presence.

Secondly I wanted to address the issue that people are being deterred from being bike commuters. I figured if I could make it more universal it might encourage people to educate themselves on bicycling safety and also encourage public officials to change our city’s cycling infrastructure and policies.

So I put out a citywide call for dedications to people who have been injured or killed in a cycling collision and I’ve gotten a lot of responses, a lot of really sad stories. But by dedicating a single bike within the larger monument I’m hoping that anybody can walk up to it and say, that’s my neighbor or that’s somebody I’ve never met but they’re still here, and therefore make more of an impact.

Part of the reason I think Ghost Bikes are so successful, and also unsuccessful is that they are specifically for people who have died. They’re successful in the fact that of course a tragic incident has a lot of impact. But also unsuccessful in that it’s just one person and unless you know that person or you know exactly what a ghost bike is it might not mean anything to somebody who’s walking by or a driver who only sees it for a second and assumes it’s a parked bike.

I opened up the field to people who have been injured because many people who are injured in bicycling collisions are left with monumental medical bills. Sometimes they’re left with serious brain injuries. Sometimes they’re left with a gigantic fear of ever biking again.

A lot of bicycling injuries do not get reported unless a vehicle has actually been damaged in the collision, in which case insurance needs to know about it. I also read an article that says policemen at the site of a bike collision usually won’t report it unless the cyclist has to go to the emergency room. My research shows most of these injuries are the fault of the car driver.

There’s a huge population of people that have been injured on bikes – everyone knows someone. And the ramifications just go on and on and on. But until now they haven’t been given any voice.

Have you personally experienced a crash or has someone you love experienced a crash?

I myself am not a cyclist. Until last year I didn’t know how to ride a bike. When I proposed this to the thesis committee at SAIC they said, “We will not let you write this until you learn how to ride a bike.” So I went out and I got a used bike and I went for three blocks and then ran into a chain link fence and got stabbed by the handlebar. It wasn’t anything serious. It was just in a parking lot but I couldn’t stop myself. And I’m waiting to get a bike right now that actually fits. I’m incredibly excited.

Every other year of my childhood my parents would purchase me a bike, thinking that if it was just cute enough I would learn how to ride it. But when my brother Austin was 12 and I was eight he got hit on his bike by an elderly driver. He spent a week in the hospital, had skull fractures, arm fractures and a lot of stitches. I wasn’t allowed to visit him at the hospital but I knew this horrible thing had gone on.

My parents fought with the insurance company because they just wanted to get him a new bike. The company paid the hospital bills but they would not pay for a new bike which was the only way my brother had to travel at the time. And it was really important that he wasn’t deterred from getting back on the bike since my family, they’re huge cyclists. The do GRABAAWR, this 500-mile bike ride across Wisconsin, every year. They are constantly biking.

That’s why they thought it was so important for you to learn to ride?

Definitely. I was the girl who was the van following the bikers on the trips. I think I had six bikes growing up and I never rode any of them. It was a big thing to see my brother get badly injured in a small town in Minnesota. There was a lot of fear for me and I never learned. I was fine on the training wheels – you can ask my dad. When I had training wheels I was good to go. But as soon as those suckers came off and my brother had his accident it was quits for me.

But my family is still really into the bike scene. My brother married a custom bike builder in Portland and they’ve decided to make it their whole business. My sister-in-law Natalie owns Sweet Pea Bikes ( I’m going out in September for a custom fitting and she’s going to build it from scratch. I’m so excited.

Tell me about some of the memorable dedications you’ve received.

I have gotten a lot of dedications that are incredibly sad, from people who say things like, “My coworker got hit last week. She’s still in the hospital and she’s going to need ten months of physical therapy.” The one that sticks out in particular was a young girl named Robin whose parents dedicated a bike to her. Robin was in a youth program in Chicago for bicycling safety and education when she got hit. Her parents are adamant that it was not an accident. They’re very, very angry. And they’re really pushing for publication of new bike safety laws. And what struck me the most is they’re certain this wasn’t an accident. Their daughter was going through all the right steps of learning how to be a safe urban cyclist when she died. Her parents got in touch with me through Active Transportation Alliance.

How else did you publicize the project?

Flyers, the Internet and I contacted all the bike shops and if there was any sort of interest I stopped by. A big help I had was from Willow Naeco from the Ride of Silence [Naeco also edits the Chicago Critical Mass Derailleur.] She’s been incredible. She passed out flyers at all the meetings and at Critical Mass and she’s just been so wonderful. Which is also the reason why any sales from the gallery show that’s going up in conjunction with the monument are going to be donated to the Ride of Silence.

In this bike culture there’s a lot of art being created. Bikes are a universal symbol of childhood and innocence and speed. If every kid’s best friend isn’t their dog then it’s their bike. It’s a universal thing; you’ll find bikes in every country. So I thought I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t include other bike art within the school show. So I invited local artists to submit.

How many bicycles are going to be in your monument?

I ended up deciding to only make the monument with as many dedications as I got – about 80. So there are going to be 80 little white bikes. I made them out of glazed porcelain. Going with the Ghost Bike tradition I wanted to make them very simple.

The monument at Lill Street Arts Center

Is there anything in particular you’d like to see happen because of your artwork?

Definitely. Chicago is rated pretty high on the list of bicycle-friendly cities. However we also have one of the highest crash ratings in the nation. I’m hoping to educate the public, get them involved and just let them know that this is issue that’s happening. Everything that Ghost Bikes don’t do, when someone sees them for a second and it doesn’t recognize what it is, I’m hoping the monument will. I want to make people stop for a second and wonder what it’s all about and ask questions and get educated about it and maybe take a stand themselves.

I’m also hoping to affect public officials. There’s a line between the public and the public official. The public officials hold all the power in changing public policy. But if I can sway enough of the public, then public officials will have to pay attention to the growing Chicago cycling community and these safety issues. And getting media coverage is the way to do that.

Are you going to be taking any more dedications at the art show?

Yes. This project doesn’t just start on Saturday because the problem doesn’t just stop on Saturday. This monument definitely has the ability to grow with time. I don’t see this stopping. And these stories from people need to be told by somebody, anybody. And hopefully action will be taken.

More info about "1000 Ghost Bikes" is available at Ramsland's blog,


Anonymous said...

do you know if there is a way to still submit names to the 1000 ghost bike memorial? Will there be more bikes added?
if so, please contact me @

jon said...


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