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Airbrush Master JoAnn Bortles

The story of the custom paint queen.

es/09_01_2011/91179JBhoomepag_00000045602.jpg” border=”0″ align=”right” />At the Metzeler Custom Bike Show in Sturgis, custom painter JoAnn Bortles had a close eye on one of the show entries bearing her work, a long and lean yellow chopper.

Bortles spotted a bald-headed man with dark engineer’s glasses carefully inspecting the bike, and she decided to go have a little fun. She sidled up to him and said, “Isn’t that the worst work you ever saw? It’s embarrassing.”

The man disagreed. “Are you kidding?” he said. “It’s beautiful!” Bortles kept egging him on, but the man wouldn’t change his position. He also figured out her ruse.

“This is your bike, isn’t it?” he said. She said no, the bike belonged to Click Baldwin. With some prodding, she admitted she had painted the bike.

The man was author and book editor Darwin Holmstrom. He recalls the moment well. “I was looking at bikes, and stopped to check out this yellow bike with a wild paint job. The bike wasn’t my cup of tea, but the paint was so interesting. It was like the yellow had been torn away to expose an H.R. Giger network of gears underneath.”   

The painter and the editor kept talking and discovered a link. Holmstrom was looking for someone to write a book about custom painting. Bortles was game to try her hand at the author game. That was six books ago, and Bortles is now an accomplished author working on her seventh title.

The first meeting at Sturgis is something both remember well, and Darwin chuckles when he recalls how Bortles approached him. “Here’s this tiny little woman, and first off, she starts an argument with me!”

Bortles has built her career on cheeky behavior. When asked where her career started, she tells the story of her first tank job gone bad. In 1979, she had just dropped out of art school to take a job at a factory and help out her family. A kid from high school taunted her, saying that if she was such a hotshot artist, why not paint his bike’s tank?

She did just that, and painted the tank in a mural reminiscent of the first Molly Hatchett album cover. The paint went over well, and generated a lot admiration from local bikers.

The kid, however, continued to be a thorn. When he insulted a friend of Bortles, she told him to take it back or she’d remove the mural. He didn’t believe her.

“I fired up the buffer, ground off the paint and threw that tank back at him,” Bortles said. The story became the talk of her neighborhood. “The next thing you know, everyone was calling me.”

She kept doing paint jobs for friends on the side while working in manufacturing. She dreamed of moving to Florida and painting bikes, but it was just a dream.

One of her close friends, David, urged her to make the leap constantly. She always put him off.

“One day, David told me, ‘Someday, you are going to be on the cover of Easyriders. I thought it was nonsense,” Bortles said. “About eight months after making that statement, he died.”

The tragedy prompted her to action. “I painted some tanks and went down to Florida in 1994 or 1995.”

Florida in the mid-1990s was a hotbed for chopper builders. Cyril Huze and Eddie Trotta were there, along with a host of other talented builders. The chopper craze was in full swing.

“I realized when I was there I really had to step up my game,” Bortles said. “I had to either get really good, or I wasn’t going to survive.”
She spent several years in Florida, and then moved back to the Carolinas. “I had to start all over from scratch. No one wanted to give me the time of day around here.”

The first few years in the state weren’t productive or profitable. Bortles estimated she painted only a half-dozen bikes.

Her fortunes took a turn at the Easyriders show in Charlotte in early 1998. She had six bikes with her paint in the show, and every one of them won an award. That led her to get a call to do a panhead that featured Stevie Ray Vaughn and that bike placed second at a big show in Columbus and was featured in Easyriders magazine.

“Without those two shows, I would probably be welding someplace.” Bortles said.

Bikes have always been part of the program for Bortles. Her father owned an auto parts business, and she recalls whiling away hours paging through stacks of car and motorcycle magazines.

“The first time I remember seeing a motorcycle. I heard this loud noise on the road near my house, I went running to road. I saw this guy all dressed in black leather on this long kicked-out chopper riding across the bridge. I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” Bortles said. “I thought, that’s what I want, I want to ride a motorcycle.”

Riding was elusive for Bortles. She had a head injury as a kid, which affected her balance, and she couldn’t even ride a bicycle until she was 12 years old. She bought a Triumph Trophy 500 when she was 21, but that turned out to be a mistake. She was a poor rider and couldn’t pass the licensing test. She was painting tanks and fenders, but couldn’t partake in the hobby.

“I was all about bikes, but I couldn’t ride,” Bortles said.

“In 1994, I was offered a Sporty to go for a ride. I thought, that’s it. I was 34 years old, ― and I went home and signed up for an MSF course. I passed with flying colors and bought my first Harley, and I’ve been riding ever since.”

The Sportster was rebuilt and customized and is now her road trip bike. She’s ridden thousands of miles on it. “That bike can tell some stories … it’s been to Sturgis and Laconia and all over. It’s had a lot of good times. I pack the tent, chairs, everything but the kitchen sink on that bike.”

Since those first two fateful shows, Bortles became the exclusive custom painter for Click Baldwin’s giant dealership, Carolina Harley-Davidson. She now shares a shop in Waxhaw, North Carolina with Jimmy Bortles, owner of the Chopper Farm.

“He blows me away as a bike builder,” Bortles said. “I don’t think my business would be what it would be without his bikes being out there winning shows.”

One of the bikes she worked on with Jimmy came about when Chica introduced his gooseneck frame. Bortles loved the frame and bought one, which Jimmy custom-built to fit Bortles’ five-foot-three build. Bortles put a wild flame job on it, with the intention of selling the bike to pay for a new roof.  The bike took second in a major show and was featured on the cover of Easyriders. Her friend David’s prediction came true.

“In 2004, 14 years after he made that statement, my personal bike gets featured on the cover of Easyriders. I was sitting in the garage looking at the bike, I said to myself, “If this bike runs and rides as good as it looks, I’m going to keep it.’”
She rode it, and she kept it.

“The bike felt like it was part of me. I came back and said, ‘I guess we have to throw a tarp on the roof, because I have to keep this bike.’”

Despite all the magazine coverage and show wins, the economic downturn has required Bortles to be creative and innovative.  

“Those of us who stayed in business, we had to drop our prices. Material costs have gone up. Utility prices are going up,” Bortles said. “This year, the economy as far as us painters go, has been rebounding. A lot of us are busier than we’ve been in years. “

“I think what’s going on is rather than buying a new bike, they are fixing what they got. Anyone who wants to stay competitive has got to be versatile and willing to negotiate. What’s your budget? What can you do? And I try to design something that fits in the customer’s business.”

“Where I make my money is not working for bike builders or big custom projects, but the regular guy or girl that wants a job done.”

She analyzed her Web traffic, and saw that many of the visitors to the site are fellow painters. Bortles is offering airbrush supply equipment for sale on her site.

Bortles took some time to visit with Mike Lavallee and learn his real flame technique. The work that resulted is gorgeous, popular and a show winner.

She credits the books as a big help to keeping up her profile. “Doing those books is probably one of the smartest things I’ve done. One of the luckiest, as well.”

The show circuit is not a regular part of her program anymore. Her paint appears regularly on entrants’ bikes, but she has tired of the grueling travel schedule and goes to only a few shows a year. When we spoke, Sturgis 2011 was in full swing, and Bortles explained that part of the custom bike world’s appeal is the people.

“One of the things that keeps me in it is that so many people, especially in the bike industry, are like family. It’s one of the hard things not being out there. It’s like missing a family reunion.”

Learn more about JoAnn Bortles at www.crazyhorsepainting.com.

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