Renowned motorcycling artist David Uhl released his latest work, entitled “Jessi,” in mid-January, and the new work has a significant Colorado connection.
“Jessi” is Uhl’s newest addition to his Women of Harley-Davidson collection. The series began with the iconic “Ruby” in 1998, and every two years Uhl adds a new woman to the collection. “Jessi” joins the ranks of “Ruth,” “Evelyn,” “Stella,” “Rose,” “Gloria,” “Pearl” and “Betty.” “Jessi” was inspired by the WAVES of World War II, women who proudly served in the U.S. Navy.
The Colorado connection might be an unexpected one given the naval theme of the painting. Golden, Colorado–based Uhl used a perfectly restored 1945 Navy Harley-Davidson UL from the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum in Colorado Springs, along with Carl Patrick’s World War II Navy SJN T-6 based at Centennial Airport outside Denver, to set the scene for the new work. The way everything came together was almost accidental.
“David does 10 to 12 new paintings per year,” explained Greg Rhodes, national sales manager for Uhl Studios in Golden. “He adds a new painting to his ‘Women of Harley-Davidson’ collection every two years, so he knew this was one of the things he had to do for 2014.”
Rhodes said Uhl decided to try and get the painting done in time for the motorcycle collector’s auction in Las Vegas and the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale. Both events are in January, so Uhl began pulling together the elements for a photo shoot in December.
“David paints these from photos,” Rhodes explained. “We do a photo shoot with the subjects he wants to include, and he uses that as a guide. David might add a background and a few other things, but the main subjects—in this case the airplane, the motorcycle and the model, Jessi—are photographed and used for reference and accuracy.”
According to Jim Wear, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum, there was a post on Uhl’s Facebook page stating he was looking for a World War II-era U.S. Navy Harley for a photo shoot. Wear messaged Uhl, telling him about the ’45 UL, which had been in service at Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. Uhl was interested, but wanted to do the shoot quickly in California, according to Wear, where he was lining up a Navy airplane and where model Jessi Combs was.
“That’s when I told him about the T-6 at Centennial, Wear said. “Carl’s flown that plane at the Veteran’s Rally in Cripple Creek for the past few years, and I was pretty sure he’d be up for being a part of this. I sent David a couple pictures of the airplane and motorcycle, and that pretty much did it.”
From there, things moved fast. “David gets going on a project once everything is set,” Rhodes said. “He likes to get into the project.” The project came together quickly. Wear told him about the bike and the airplane on December 27, and the shoot happened the 31st.
“David is passionate about motorcycles, obviously,” Rhodes explained. “But he also has a passion for aviation. With this painting he had the opportunity to put them together and pay tribute to the strong women who stepped up to fill a vital role during a turbulent time in history.”
It was at the photoshoot that Wear met Jessi Combs, the model the painting is named for, who flew to Denver from Los Angeles for the shoot.
“I was impressed by her,” Wear said. “She’s a very attractive lady, and was really down to earth. It was a pretty cold day, and she was standing out there in the wind in a tank top and didn’t snivel or complain even once. Lots of times these models are pretty high maintenance and complain about different stuff, but not this gal. She was a real trooper. She did everything she was asked to do and never balked at anything.”
The shoot lasted most of the day, with a few hundred images being made. After the shoot, Wear posted a picture from the shoot on Facebook and immediately got “a barrage of replies.” He was inundated with questions about Combs—What was she like? Was she nice? Is she as good looking as the photos? They were common questions about celebrities, so he Googled her.
Jessi Combs, it turns out, is a TV personality, having appeared on Mythbusters, All Girl Garage, 4×4 Extreme, and Overhaulin’. Most importantly, she’s the current women’s land-speed record holder, having set the record last October at just shy of 393 mph.
“I felt like an idiot,” Wear said. “I had no idea. The lady has grease under her fingernails—literally. She wrenches, she’s a fabricator, has a TV career, she’s tough, down to earth and friendly; no wonder she didn’t complain about the cold. And she likes to drive fast enough to hold the land-speed record.”
Jessi wasn’t the only fast one on the project. David Uhl was moving right along, too.
“I figured it’d be a couple months before we saw the painting,” Wear said. “But it was about two weeks after the shoot when we heard David was finishing up.”
“David lives at the studio working long days when he’s into a painting,” Rhodes explained. “We wanted to debut “Jessi” at the Las Vegas Antique Auction. That gave David about two weeks to do the painting. That’s pretty normal.”
As for the Harley UL, Wear explained the Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum had its work cut out when it decided to restore the UL. It was a collection of parts in a box shipped from the Philippines. The motorcycle had been seriously “civilianized” by its Filipino owner. Fortunately, most of the parts for this UL were in the box, allowing for a full and accurate restoration by Michael “Hawk” Scofield.
The 74” UL is rare; in 1945 only 513 were produced for the U.S. Army. Of those, very few were passed on to the Air Corps, Marine Corps and the Navy. By comparison, 8,317 WLA 45” motorcycles rigged for combat were supplied to the Army that same year.
Wear said he was shocked when told Uhl’s painting was largely finished and set to be unveiled only two weeks after the photo shoot. Wear went to Vegas for the unveiling of the painting. Uhl added a different hangar and took a few minor artistic liberties, which makes it a one-of-a-kind piece of art. The focus on Jessi and the bike stand out, and the T-6, hangar and light create a great feel for the piece.
Uhl was still working on some of the finer finishing touches at the Vegas show, but to the untrained eye the painting looked finished. “I got there and there it was,” Wear said. “I was blown away. I’m very excited and proud to be a part of this. The painting is great.”
Then there was the unfinished business Wear had with Jessi Combs. “I apologized to her for not knowing who she was,” he said. She laughed and thanked him, but wasn’t too concerned about it. She jokingly signed a photo for Wear, saying, “Now you’ll know who I am.” The two then talked for about a half-hour about the painting, bikes and her speed record.
“It just reinforced my opinion of her,” Wear said. “She’s a humble, hard-working lady. Not only is she the woman in the painting, but she personifies the women represented in the painting.”