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Planes, ’canes and Ati-mobiles

Beth Impson of Atlanta admires the intricate curves of the wooden bike on display at North Mountain Gallery in Cody. The bike was the first made by Ati Bekes of rural Powell. Beth Impson of Atlanta admires the intricate curves of the wooden bike on display at North Mountain Gallery in Cody. The bike was the first made by Ati Bekes of rural Powell. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

Powell artist builds unique wooden bike on sale for $32,500

As a young man, Ati Bekes’ life was spent in the air.

A quarter-century later the former Hungarian Air Force pilot has excelled at most every mode of transportation man has come up with.

From street bikes capable of speeds of 150-180 miles per hour to paddle boards that glide on scenic waterways, Ati Bekes has ridden it all.

After spending years (and thousands of dollars) racing motorcycles on road tracks and bicycles in official USA Cycling events, Bekes is now trying to become the man behind the machine.

Ati (rhymes with “Scotty”) arrived in America in 1994, as a 25-year-old just a few years removed from flight training. He spent six months struggling to find steady work in the Northeast — enduring a stint cleaning horse stables — before returning to Hungary. He decided to try the U.S. again just a few months later, when he received a call from Jack Barber, the owner of Alaska Air Taxi in Anchorage, Alaska. Ati spent six months cleaning and loading planes, sometimes with sacks full of moose meat.

“Then I went back to Jersey, back to the horse farm, and eventually I was doing construction,” he said.

Ati was working as an accomplished carpenter in some of New Jersey’s most upscale neighborhoods. In his 11 years building and improving the mansions of the rich and famous (or geographically near the famous; Ati said the final house he worked on was two doors down from Jon Bon Jovi’s.) Bekes said he became bored of carpentry. He had seen all the architectural and technological advancements housing loans could buy. There was nothing left to excite him.

But the idea of building a wooden version of the two-wheeled vehicle he had spent so many hours on injected Ati with a new passion. He had the opportunity to start on his project when he suddenly found himself without work for a month.

Away from the multi-million dollar mansions, Ati began applying his woodworking and construction skills to something far less lucrative (for now) but far more rewarding.

He built his first wooden bicycle in October 2010, when he and his wife (Powell native Christine Clifton) were still living in Highlands, N.J., a town of just more than 5,000 people on the Jersey Shore.

The first one was made for Christine and took about six months to complete.

“If I could do it full-time, which ultimately that’s my goal, then I could build one bike in two months,” Ati said.

The bikes are constructed of dozens of layers of plywood. Each sheet of plywood is cut according to Ati’s custom design, then glued to another piece. Once the glue dries, the sharp-angled block of wood is carved down to a smooth, curvaceous design. Ati’s first bike was 37 sheets of 4.5 millimeter wide plywood at its widest point.

It wasn’t easy for the modern-day renaissance man. The craft and skill came natural, but time evaded him. Work, races and a marriage (not necessarily in that order) slowed down the already slow bike-building process.

But once completed, Christine’s beach cruiser would turn heads as she rode around town, often causing cars to stop so their drivers could ask what it was they were seeing.

What a rush. But how could Ati keep it going?

His hand was forced by the devastating power of nature in October. Like thousands of other helpless residents of the Northeast, Ati, Christine and their then-16-month-old daughter Julianna (Juju, for short) were left with a flooded home after Hurricane Sandy smashed through the region.

Without a home, or any relatives in the area, the Bekes family headed West. In a makeshift caravan of a U-Haul, Ati’s work van and Christine’s Nissan Pathfinder, they took off for Powell at 5 a.m. Jan. 1, as if they were trying to get a head start on their New Year’s resolution.

The family spent four weeks with Christine’s parents at their home near McCullough Peaks.

“It was kinda nice, it’s instant access to the McCulloughs,” said Ati, who still enjoys hiking and mountain biking with Christine and the ever-active Juju.

Four months later, Ati stood in the workshop of his rental home west of Powell, wearing a “Friends don’t let friends ride beater bikes” T-shirt and looking over a half-completed wooden bike. The plywood frame lacked wheels, pedals and varnish, but was already looking like something that would turn heads.

This one is for him, he said. That was the plan, at least, but now Ati hopes he doesn’t get to keep it.

Ati’s craft is more than just an unusual hobby, and it may be worth more than a few prolonged glances around town.

The first bike, which was reviewed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and featured at the 2012 National Association of Handmade Bikes in Sacramento, is now the most prominently displayed piece at the North Mountain Gallery in Cody, where a photo album that chronicles the building process and a hefty $32,500 price tag accompany the bike.

“This thing is just so perfect,” says gallery owner Doug Nordberg as he runs his hands along the bike’s curves, admiring its symmetry. “These spots on each side of it — it’s perfect.”

Nordberg said he admires the artist even more than the art.

“There’s more than just a bike here. There’s a story behind the bike,” he said. “I think as people get to know Ati they will find that he’s just as interesting as his work.”

Even among the high-end, big-ticket items that line the walls and fill his gallery’s ample floorspace, Nordberg holds Bekes’ bike in high regard.

“You take the wheels and the handlebars off this thing and just have that frame as a sculpture and there’s something just intriguing about it by itself,” Nordberg said. “At this point in time it’s definitely my favorite piece.”

It’s likely also the gallery’s most alluring piece, drawing in passersby who notice the peculiar outline of a bike through the storefront windows.

Within the span of a half hour on a hot afternoon in June, tourists from Texas, Georgia and New Hampshire walked in to North Mountain Gallery to get a closer look at Bekes’ creation.

Steve and Beth Impson of Atlanta said they had never seen nor heard of a wooden bike before.

“It’s a piece of art,” Beth said. “It might be functional, but it’s a piece of art.”

The bike is currently the most expensive piece for sale at North Mountain.

“I don’t think I’d park it outside,” Steve joked.

Nordberg said there is a market for a piece like Bekes’, though it might take some time to find the right buyer.

“A piece like this definitely isn’t going to sell overnight,” Nordberg said. “It’s going to take that perfect client who collects bikes.”

Adding to the validity of Ati as an artist, a second bike (along with a bike-inspired end or hallway table) will be displayed at the Cody High Style show Sept. 18-22 at the Cody Auditorium.

Nordberg suggested he complete a companion piece to showcase the fact that Ati can build furniture as well. Ati pitched an idea for an intricate writing desk, but Nordberg steered him towards something smaller that would have a better chance to sell.

“The opportunities with furniture are so much better than with the bikes,” Ati said.

Like the small compartment Ati built into each bike frame for the purpose of holding a post-ride beer, Bekes hopes his newfound devotion to wood, art and movement will help him carve out his own niche in the Wyoming high-art community.

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3 comments

  • posted by Linda Fischer

    August 09, 2013 2:29 pm

    He is an awesome artist and a cool guy to know.

  • posted by jon salisbury

    August 09, 2013 6:56 am

    Great article! But still can't capture the man Ati that I know! Layer after layer of fascinating things and you never know what you'll discover next. These works are beautiful pieces of art that can only come from genius! Thank you!

  • posted by Sofia Frumkin

    August 08, 2013 6:43 pm

    Mr. Nordberg you have found a true artist and craftsman. So happy for Ati that he will have the recognition he deserves. So glad that we know him as a good friend. Jersey's loss is now Wyoming's valuable gain. Good luck Ati.

    Miss you.

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