Motor Maven

Lisa Letson is vice president of ABATE Onondaga and a prop designer at Syracuse Stage.

Lisa Letson is vice president of ABATE Onondaga and a prop designer at Syracuse Stage.

 By day, Lisa Letson designs props — by night, the road is her stage.

By Ashley M. Casey  |  Photography by Kimberly Cook

Lisa Letson has little difficulty reconciling the two facets of her life: the refined, showy theater world and rough-and-tumble biker culture. “I don’t usually feel like I am two different people,” mused the Syracuse Stage props artisan. “I just have two very unique interests and somehow make them work.”

Her two worlds sometimes collide when her biker friends catch one of the shows she has styled. If anyone raises an eyebrow at the leather-clad tough guys enjoying a musical, Letson is quick to dispel the stereotypes. “Why are there these weird dividing lines between people?” Letson asked. “[Bikers] might look a certain way, but they still enjoy A Christmas Story.”

A rider, fashion designer and vice president of the Onondaga chapter of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE), Letson is a motorcycle enthusiast by night, but her day job at Syracuse Stage keeps her busy.

“We deal with pretty much anything that is not the three walls of the set,” Letson explained. “My job is to do whatever it takes to make things look good.” It is up to Letson to create realistic recreations of animals, food and other household objects for the stage. She also upholsters and sews furniture pieces.

There’s no exciting tale of how Letson became a biker — it simply happened, naturally and gradually. “I don’t really know how it happened, but I always knew I’d eventually ride,” she remembered. Several of her friends and family members were bikers, and Letson began to ride with a friend about 10 years ago. Her friend heard someone was selling a bike. “He said. . . ‘It’d be cheap and easy to learn to ride.’ So I decided I [was] gonna go for it.”

She saved enough money to buy that bike, and from then on, Letson found herself increasingly involved in the local biker community. About three years ago, her husband, Jerry, helped her build her own bike out of used Harley-Davidson parts. Lisa lent her artistic skills to painting the bike.

“My husband is a Harley mechanic, and about three years ago, we put it together,” Letson remembered, admitting that Jerry did most of the actual building. “He had quite a few parts lying around. We would go to swap meets or [shop] online and slowly gather[ed] the parts that we needed.” As vintage bike fans, Jerry and Lisa purchased both authentic and replica vintage parts as well, items for which there is a growing market.

The motor and the frame were the two rarest and most expensive pieces to come by, but little by little, the Letsons pieced Lisa’s bike together. With a 1979 motor and components from other years and makes, Letson had to ride out a few compatibility kinks in her bike’s early days.

hp lisa3“A lot of the parts we bought were used, so they didn’t always work together. We had a time figuring what ones were working and what ones weren’t,” she said. Eventually, Lisa and Jerry were able to get her bike running smoothly, and they are in the beginning stages of creating another bike in a similar fashion.

Between the stage and the open road, Letson doesn’t have much time for other hobbies. She admitted that she rarely is home, but when she does have a chance for a breather, she enjoys cooking and reading. One passion for which she has made time is fashion design, which draws from both her biker and theater sensibilities. A graduate of Syracuse University’s Fashion and Textile Design program, Letson knew she wouldn’t follow her classmates’ predicted path of moving to New York City and trying to make it as a designer.

“I knew when I was in the program that I didn’t really want to do that quite yet,” Letson recalled. Her theater background led her to prop designing, but she never forgot her fashion roots. She began to design clothes for her own unique style. “As I was making the clothes, I found they were theatrical-looking,” she added, giving a nod to her theater and costume expertise. She moved into creating more functional designs, but her clothes still retain historical elements such as corsets and bustles. “I’ll try to meld them into something wearable and not odd,” she said.

Letson made her own wedding dress, a scarlet high-low creation made of dupioni silk.

In addition to historical fashion, Letson collects bits and pieces of inspiration as she goes about her life. Often, a certain image or element sparks her creativity and she expands it into a design. “It’s kind of crazy now because of Pinterest and Facebook. You’re constantly seeing [inspiration],” Letson explained. “I take a small detail, like a pocket on a garment, and base a whole outfit on it.” Letson keeps her imagination supple by sketching her design ideas often.

She also drapes fabric on mannequins to give herself an idea of how a future garment will turn out. “There’s a lot of last-minute changes where I go, ‘Oh, wait — it’d be really cool if I add trim!’” she said.

No single style icon influences Letson’s creations, but currently she is finding ideas within ‘60s fashion. The clean, Mad Men-esque silhouettes of the first half of the decade and the later flower child designs both factor into Letson’s vision. “The very tailored, mod stuff contrasts with the wild hippie stuff, [which] lends itself to biker fashion,” she said. “There’s kind of a push toward being closer to the earth,” she added, citing hippie style’s use of natural fibers such as cotton and elements such as fringe. Of course, the universal biker trends of black and leather are present in Letson’s work as well.

Other than her current inspirations, Letson does not confine herself to a particular set of fashion rules. “My only quote-unquote ‘rule’ for what I’d like to make is if I would like it, then probably other people would like it too,” she said. She strives to make “totally unique” pieces made up of existing clothing items.

Wearing her dupioni silk wedding gown, Lisa Letson poses with the bike she and her husband, Jerry, built for her use.

Wearing her dupioni silk wedding gown, Lisa Letson poses with the bike she and her husband, Jerry, built for her use.

Given that they are both mavens in the CNY biker fashion scene, it’s no surprise that Letson has rubbed elbows with another of our Today’s CNY Woman featured ladies. Sharon Tuttle, owner of Biker Alley, and Letson collaborated on a fashion show for Syracuse Super Swap in 2010.

“We’ve been friends for a while,” Letson explained. “[Sharon] was friends with one of the promoters of the events and we thought it’d be really cool to do a live fashion show.”

Both Letson and Tuttle created unique designs for the Super Swap show. Tuttle incorporated some of the vendors’ logos into her specialty cut T-shirts. After a whirlwind of fittings, with fellow female bikers as models, Tuttle and Letson braced themselves for opening day. Unsure if bikers would be interested in fashion, they didn’t get their hopes too high. But they were pleasantly surprised.

“I think 1,000 people walked in the door that day, so we were thrilled,” Letson recalled. She and Tuttle both expressed interest in a future fashion collaboration.

In 2007, Letson joined the Onondaga chapter of ABATE on her husband’s suggestion. “My husband has been a member for over 30 years, and it’s very important to him,” she said. Letson served as the chapter’s secretary for three years and was also a road captain before being elected vice president in 2013.

In addition to being the backup for ABATE Onondaga’s president, John Hayden, Letson’s duties include coordinating events and personnel. “I’m the committee organizer. [For events, I] make sure the proper arrangements are being made. We usually have flyers made up, and I gather the volunteers,” she explained. She also handles public appearances and media contacts. “Usually there’s three or four officers who rotate and do that kind of stuff,” she added. Hayden and ABATE Onondaga’s legislative officer, Ben Rabin, recently appeared on NewsChannel 9’s Bridge Street to discuss motorcycle awareness and road safety.

Letson is coordinating one of ABATE Onondaga’s major summer events. The Freedom of Choice/Memorial Run kicks off at noon on Saturday, July 6, at the ABATE meeting hall, 1116 Wolf St., Syracuse. “We always do this particular event,” she explained of the run, which traditionally protests helmet laws for motorcyclists and supports riders’ right to wear or not wear helmets. “[This year, it’s] combined with the Memorial Run — a day of remembrance for riders who have passed away, or servicemen and women.”

In addition to supporting freedom of choice for helmets, ABATE has also lobbied against legislation that would require motorcycles to have seat belts. While seat belts protect accident victims in an automobile, that protection does not extend to motorcycles. “You actually have a higher chance of surviving [a crash] if you’re free of the bike because you don’t want it to land on top of you,” Letson explained.

Lisa Letson created Petey the Parrot for Gifford Family Theatre’s  2012 production of How I Became a Pirate.

Lisa Letson created Petey the Parrot for Gifford Family Theatre’s 2012 production of How I Became a Pirate.

ABATE Onondaga’s focus is broader than just legislation. “We’re also a social group. We do a lot of charity work,” she pointed out. According to www.abatecny.org, some of the chapter’s summer rides will benefit Vera House, March of Dimes and other charities. “People don’t even have to own a motorcycle to be a part of the group. They just have to care about riding or know someone who does,” Letson added.

Above all, in her work with ABATE, Letson strives to educate bikers about their rights and protect them from the dangers of the road. About three years ago, ABATE Onondaga began encouraging its members to report potholes and other road hazards. “We would collect these complaints and we found if we got enough reports about a particular unsafe area, they’d send a road crew almost immediately,” she explained.

“People don’t realize you can actually make a difference.”

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