J. Shia first rode a motorcycle when she was about eight years old. Since she was small, her father—a jack of all trades with a penchant for cycling—would start the engine for her and lean it against a tree so she could climb up and ride. This worked well until it was time to stop the bike and get out.
“To get off I would have to put the bike against a tree, and I would miss all the time and break my head or fall off,” said Ms. Shia. So she would continue. Her two older brothers, waiting their turn, would grow impatient. But while she loved horseback riding, she wasn’t greedy. “I was too scared to stop at the tree,” she said.
Ms. Shia, now 31, still has the old Honda and can still barely touch the ground while sitting on it. But she doesn’t have to stop driving anymore. She is the owner of Madhouse Motorsa 6,000-square-foot motorcycle shop in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.
Madhouse performs routine maintenance and repairs, renovates vintage bicycles, provides winter storage and completes custom projects. Mrs. Shia also has a studio there, where she makes artistic but rideable motorcycle sculptures.
“There are a lot of people in the motorcycle world who are kind of posers for the culture,” said Lucas Merchant, 30, the owner of a Boston real estate management company and a client of Ms. Shia’s for the past 10 years. “J. is definitely the authentic, real deal.
“She knows all about engines. In fact, she built the largest vintage motorcycle restoration company in New England, and it’s completely overhauled,” he said. “But she literally started in a backyard.”
When Mrs. Shia was a teenager in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her father bought an old motorcycle with the intention of repairing and selling it. “My family’s yard was getting more and more crowded,” she said. “At one point there were about 70 old motorcycles in the yard. So I asked if I could have one, and he basically said, ‘Sure. If you can fix one, you can have it.’”
Through trial and error, Ms. Shia got the bike working, and she would ride it around “to show off a bit,” she said. When people asked how she got it, she said, “I fixed it up myself. I am a mechanic.”
People started tapping her to fix their motorcycles, and what she lacked in skill she made up for in guts. “I would give people my parents’ address and say, ‘Oh yeah, come to the yard and give me 20 bucks and I’ll fix your bike.'”
Interested in photography, she was admitted after high school to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), one of the oldest American art schools and the only independent government-funded. But the summer before her first year, an ex-girlfriend became pregnant and couldn’t care for the child, so Ms. Shia volunteered to take responsibility for the baby, a boy named Audai.
“I wanted to be a documentary war photographer, and you can’t do that with a baby,” she said. “And so I was a little confused about what I was going to do with my career.”
She continued to repair bicycles throughout college, doggedly sharpening her skills and, when they got stuck, calling skilled mechanics cold. She attended classes full-time, arranged with professors to arrive late or leave early to care for Audai, and relied on family for backup childcare.
“One time she had to take Audai to school, so she paid one of the girls in the photo lab to watch him in the hallway for a bit,” said Gretchen Devine, 31, Ms. Shia’s partner of 11 and a classmate of hers. MassArt.
“I came out of the darkroom and saw Audai, who was about 4 months old, playing in a cardboard box, and he was the cutest little kid you could ever imagine,” said Ms. Devine. “So I sat down and started playing with him, and J. came out into the hallway. She will recognize that moment as the moment when she decided to try and get together. That was about it. But I met the boy first, technically.”
Ms. Devine was immediately drawn to Ms. Shia’s creative ambition and talent. “I’ve never met anyone so motivated. Though I don’t think it’s just of its own accord. It is motivated for Audii,” she said. “She wants him to have every opportunity she can.”
This tenacity has served Ms. Shia well, but it has not always brought her joy. “My schedule was all sorts of crazy, so there were many years when working on motorcycles was kind of a desperate act, and neither myself nor my family had such a positive connotation to this,” she said. “I worked in two layers of Carhartts, in the dirt, outside, for most of my teens and twenties.”
Opening her first indoor store in 2009 was a blessing to Ms. Shia, as she was able to create a space of her own. This gave herself and her clients a sense of comfort and security, many of whom felt excluded from the larger motorcyclist population because of their gender, identity or sexuality.
“I’ve definitely run into bikers who weren’t that open to the trans community, and it was really off-putting,” said Krys LeMay, 32, an audio engineer who bought his first bike from Ms. Shia in 2014. and remains a loyal customer. “But that makes the connection I do have that little bit more special. Because I’m so welcome at J. at Madhouse, I don’t have to go anywhere else.”
Ms. Shia hopes to expand that sense of community by building a coffee shop in Madhouse and opening it this summer. She and Mrs Devine also host an annual motor show in Cambridge called Wild rabbit† This year’s event, on Saturday, is expected to draw 2,000 people.
But one of the most powerful ways Ms. Shia has found to transcend the workday is to design custom motorcycles – for herself. It started in 2017 when she was invited to showcase a motorcycle at an event called Motorcycles as Art. While this seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine her aspirations in art school with her current calling, she resisted because she doubted her abilities.
“Then a light bulb went out and I was like, ‘Wait. I’ve never built a bike for me, in a style I like. I can do whatever I want,'” she said. “And it was this aha- moment when I finally, for the first time, after living near motorcycles, designed a bike that wasn’t for a customer.”
She created a 1971 BSA A65 that started with the crank of a huge lever, in collaboration with a sculptor friend, Michael Ulman. The bike was well received and in the aftermath she started to focus more on creative projects. This resulted in a complex, long-lasting construction, inspired by ‘Swan Lake’.
“I wanted to do a project with two bikes and have them mirror each other,” Ms. Shia said. “Same exact weight, height, height, same year, make, model. But opposites.” Like the Black Swan and the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s ballet.
She bought vintage parts, as she always had, from eBay – microscopes, pencil sharpeners, rotary telephones, juicers, musical instruments – and grafted them onto them, each piece serving a function. The bikes were showcased at the Scope Art Show during Miami Art Week in December. One sold to a collector for about $100,000. Since October, Ms. Shia has been working with eBay Motors, and was featured in a recent campaign called ‘Let’s Ride’.
Despite all her online purchases, Ms. Shia recently reduced her personal motorcycle collection from “60 or 70” to “20, 25, maybe 30?” She laughed. “I’m trying to break free from the potential apple that falls too close to the tree — from the idea of hoarding, like my father.”
Her son, now 12, continues to break family cycles and “doesn’t seem really interested in becoming a mechanic, and that’s the best thing for me,” Ms. Shia said. While he is comfortable on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, she said, he has expressed an interest in becoming a teacher or veterinarian.
For her own future, Ms. Shia wants to continue expanding her business, serving her communities and broadening her output.
“She has always wanted a motorcycle in the Guggenheim, one of her motorcycle sculptures. And I think she’ll make it happen,” Mrs. Devine said. “Everything she sets her mind to, she really does.”