Friday, April 10, 2015
Steve Hennis "Flame Thrower Customs"
There's a lawyer who walks into a bar... well shit, I don't know where I was going with this... Steve Hennis isn't just a lawyer he is an extremely talented painter from Northeast Ohio. With elaborate tape, brilliant color choices and off-the-wall line schemes, Steve has been creating masterpieces for a little over a decade now. There are handful of buddies that I ride with all the time that have paint work done by Steve and it's always cool to see his paint flying in the breeze. From custom chopper tins, to helmets, to even a few cars, Steve is a master at what he does and you can tell his attention to detail is insane. I don't know how he keeps track of all the lines he puts down, with all the different colors sometimes, mind blowing stuff for real! It was a no-brainer to ask Steve to paint a Biltwell Gringo helmet for Fuel Cleveland that will be showcased on May 9th. I am so excited to have Steve onboard with the show and here is a little interview I had with him the other day, enjoy!
Have you always called Northeast Ohio your home? What city do you live in, exactly?
S: Yes, I am a native Northeast Ohioan. I was born in Canton and my family lived in Bolivar until I was about four years old. Then my family moved to a rural area of Canton Township southwest of Canton. I briefly moved away from the area for college and employment, but returned to Northeast Ohio permanently since 1988. I have lived in the small town of Doylestown (Wayne County), where we built a new home in 1995. I live there with Linda, my wife of 25 years, and our four boys... Steven Jr (age 13), Spencer (age 11), and Jake & Josh (ages 9).
How did motorcycles become such a big part of your life? What’s the history there if any?
S: I am relatively "late" to motorcycle ownership. I purchased my first bike (1994 Sportster XL1200) in 2004 at the age of 41. However, I have owned, built and restored classic American muscle cars and hot-rods since I was 18 years old. I have always loved anything with a motor and an attitude! Once I owned my first motorcycle... I was completely hooked on bikes. I am drawn to bikes because of their artistry and basic mechanical nature... and the garage-built movement is a perfect fit for my artistic approach.
When did you discover your talents to paint such elaborate masterpieces on tanks? Do you come from an art background and just started applying to bikes or something that came from trial and error?
S: I have always been artistic... painting, drawing, doodling cars and motorcycles in the margins of my notebooks in school and college. Although my B.S. is in Engineering and I took all "college prep" classes in High School, I was always enrolled as one of the best and most interested students in Art classes. As a senior in High School, I won a small scholarship as the best art student in my graduating class. As a teenager and college student, I produced several oil painting along the style of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. I painted a few cars... my own and some buddies... after my dad showed me some basics using his vintage suction-feed DeVilbiss spray gun that he used to paint machine tools that he built in classic "Machine-Shop Gray". Around 2003, I began to notice a lot of my older baby-boomer co-workers rolling into the office riding brand-new Harley's and metric cruisers... I wondered that if such guys were buying expensive new bikes, would they also be interested in having them custom-painted. I painted a set of tins for an FXR in my garage and they came out great. Constructed a homespun spray booth and had the opportunity to practice and experiment... pretty soon I was painting bikes for friends and acquaintances and a couple years later I was painting for all sorts of clients!
What other forms of art do you enjoy or are dabbling in? Anything you love more than painting?
S: I love to render oil paintings, but I have not had the time to really work on anything for years. But anything artistic interests me... decorating, designing, etc. I custom-paint our boys' baseball helmets. I painted a massive Noah's Ark scene on the walls of our oldest son's bedroom when he was born. But I mostly enjoy anything associated with drawing and painting. Although I have zero experience as a sculptor, I fancy myself a bit of a "metal-sculptor" by custom-machining gas caps, exhaust tips, pegs, sissy bars, air cleaners, etc. for bikes using brass and aluminum.
What is your all time favorite bike you have ever owned and why?
S: My personal favorite bike that I have owned is my 1971 Harley Sportster XLCH... I built it from scratch and still ride it consistently. It was my "first of a kind" project... first truly garage-built project, first hardtail, first time that I designed/machined my own pegs/caps/sissybar/air-cleaner/etc, first cam-cover chop, first complete motor & transmission rebuild, first time grafting different years/generations of front-end/wheels/brakes together, first bike featured in a magazine, first bike to win awards at local bike shows, and more. The bike was a complete derelict when I bought it back in 2008 through a buddy in NYC. I started the project, but then my Dad unexpectedly died and the project slammed to a standstill for a year or two while I worked to liquidate his machine tools and machinist equipment. I moved my Dad's vintage South Bend 10-Heavy lathe, Index vertical mill, Delta drill press, Delta bandsaw and lots of other equipment into the shop at my house. This enabled me to design and machine a lot of my own parts, and it felt like my late Dad was watching over my shoulder as I stumbled and fumbled to re-learn how to run those tools that I had last operated more than 25 years earlier.
What are some of the most challenging things for you, when it comes to painting? What styles and/or techniques do you like to paint the most?
S: Nowadays, one of the most challenging things about painting is juggling several projects at once to keep them all moving forward for various clients. Other more "challenging" things are the aspects of painting that are more pedestrian and drudgery... priming, wet-sanding and buffing. But motivation is never lacking... I truly enjoy custom-painting. I sort of picked up the moniker of "FlameThrower" as a lark... the first few years of painting for clients were filled with client requests for hot-rod flames and ghost flames. But I proved to have a great eye for laying out classic hot-rod flames, which became my "go-to design" for some years. But the past few years I have become best-known and sought out by clients for what I call "Retro-1970's panel/flake/kandy" airbrushed designs... and I absolutely love rendering those designs using miles of fine-line masking tape, jars of flake, and lots of fish-scales, sunbursts, floating spheres, lace, squiggly lines, dot-matrix and more.
I have seen some of your customer brass work and it’s truly insane the craftsmanship you put into them, what other mediums do you work with and are trying to master?
S: I truly love machining and I am always looking to learn more and get more proficient at old-school, manual (non-CNC) machining. My late Dad was a true master machinist who could design, machine and fabricate any mechanical device imaginable. When I am machining parts late at night on the machine tools that he purchased brand-new in the 1950's for his fledgling shop, I feel a real "connection" to old-school machining tradesmen such as my Dad. I really want to get back into some oil painting... I have dozens of cool chopper-inspired themes in my head but never enough time to get into them. I would also like to get into more artistic airbrushing, which I really enjoy but do not get requested much by clients.
If you could jump on your bike and go anywhere right now, where would you go and why?
S: So many potential places to ride, yet so little time! My favorite riding is just riding solo on back-country roads. Late last Summer, our family spent a couple days in the Hocking Hills area south of Columbus... there were so many little-travelled, twisty, freshly-paved roads that I would love to explore on my '71 XLCH chop. And once I had spent a couple days and a few tanks of gas in the Hocking Hills, I would head down to the Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina area to ride more back-country twisty roads just to get lost then find my way out again... even sans any cell-phone connections!
What are some of your favorite memories that painting and motorcycles have giving you?
S: That very first set of tins that I painted in my garage, surrounded by sheet plastic, with the bugs attacking... and that Kandy Brandywine with faded hot-rod flame job still came out so sweet that I was simply hooked on custom-painting! I vividly recall custom-painting tins from my first bike ('94 XL1200) as the very first job rendered in my freshly-constructed spray booth on New Year's Eve 2005... and loving it. I truly love simply walking into my paint workshop area and my spray booth... the look and the smells... and the anticipation of either creating some new work or prepping/finishing pieces.
Who is the biggest inspiration to you? Is there a single painter you wish you could apprentice or sit back and ask a million questions to?
S: I really enjoy surfing around on-line or on Instagram to peruse all the super-cool work that other painters are doing. That gets me going... gets the creativity flowing. I like LOTS of the skilled artists and artisans custom-painting today and some of the best are obscure dudes that nobody hardly knows. But my favorite dude to watch and to follow is Sonny Boy working out of Los Angeles... his work just flows seamlessly and exudes that quintessential "SoCal Cool" feel. I would love to find myself in L.A. to visit Sonny Boy's shop and just watch him work and rap with him.
Is painting your full-time gig or a goal to make it eventually the only thing in your life, or do you find it as an escape and better to keep as a passion?
S: I am truly something of an "enigma" or "anomaly" in the custom-painting world. I worked in Corporate America for three decades, and I have been an Ohio-licensed Attorney for the past 22 years. Believe me, there are NOT many custom-painting Attorneys (lol). In 2012, I retired from my 28-year corporate employer because they wanted me to begin accepting long-term Project Management assignments at locations all over the country. With our young family, that was simply not an acceptable option. So my wife and I decided to take a leap of faith... I took my pension, started my solo legal practice and ramped-up my custom-painting schedule. Over a period of about six months, FlameThrower Customs grew from a really cool hobby to a full-fledged enterprise! Every year my law practice becomes more and more well-established. And every year my list of painting clients continues to grow and grow. I truly enjoy both my law practice and FlameThrower Customs, and the two allow me to exercise both my analytical and artistic skills... most days it is back-and-forth between the two all day!
Any big goals or projects you are currently working on you would like to share?
S: I am currently building a hardtailed long-chop '69 Sportster XLCH. It has a frame that was custom-designed and fabbed in conjunction with my master fabricator buddy, Mike Reed from Marion, Indiana. The motor is kick-start and mag-fired. This project began a couple years ago, I pushed it forward a little this past Fall, and I really hope to get heavily into it when custom-painting slows down a little (if it slows down) this upcoming Summer. My only goals for FlameThrower Customs are continued growth, strengthening relationships with a few very cool local bike-builders, continued improvement in my art, exploring new styles of art, and continue having fun in the business the entire time.
Are you hoping to pass down your techniques and skills to your young ones as they get older?
That's a great question! They are all cognizant that Pops works a lot in the world of custom motorcycles and paints some pretty cool-looking stuff that often ends up in magazines. All four boys play sports around the calendar, and I coach them and their teams. All four boys are also excellent students, especially in Math. I see flashes of artistic skills in all of them and I would welcome teaching them my art/trade as either a hobby or more. I would like to see any of them take a real interest in art, which would lead them more into what I do.
Are you a homemade pizza or delivery kind of guy?
S: More of a "delivery guy"... although my wife and I recently started dabbling a little in baking our own pies at home.
Anyone you would like to thank or give shout outs to?
S:My Number One shout-out is to my beautiful wife of 25 years, Linda. She has put up with me for over 25 years and has been very supportive of FlameThrower Customs as it has grown and morphed over the past decade. My second shout-out goes to all my clients and buddies who have entrusted me with their tins over the years. Let's face it, painters cannot master this craft just working on our own stuff... gotta have clients with great ideas and an openness and trust to allow us to do what we do best. I also want to give a shout-out to Austin Andrella at "Austin Martin Originals" in nearby Manchester, Ohio. I have painted a series of AMO's projects... two of them have been magazine features, another is slated for an upcoming magazine cover, one has won Biketoberfest awards for AMO and Best painter award for FlameThrower, and one has won Best Retro Chopper in Manhattan and at the I-X Center. I need to give a shout-out to Rico and Donny at "Old Skool Cycles" in Barberton. Rico and I do a lot of bartering... I exchange my painting for his skills as the "Master of Ironheads". Another shout-out for John and Mel at "John's Speed & Customs" in Chesterland... I recently hooked up with them to paint some very cool projects. My final very special shout-out is for all my brothers around the country and the world who are full-fledged Bastards and Sportster Choppin' Bastards in the "Quad Cam Bastards" on-line Sportster-only chopper club. I have been part of the QCB's since 2006 and a full-on Bastard since 2011. Some of the best Sportster-based choppers reside in the tiny garage-shops of these craftsmen!
Here are some more places you can find Steve's work: www.flamethrowercustoms.blogspot.com