After an injury sidelined Jen Bardsley from one of her passions, mountain biking, the Sussex School art teacher found a way to channel her spare time to raise awareness for the city's planned bike parks.

The Portrait Project, on view on First Friday, includes 500 black-and-white pictures of local bikers.

"I thought this would be a great way to raise awareness for the bike parks, and actually show the community of people — a small slice of Missoula that's stoked for this and wants to see this happen," she said.

In April, Bardsley was accepted for the Montana Teacher Leaders in the Arts initiative, a joint effort between the Montana Arts Council and the Office of Public Instruction. As part of the program, she needed to develop a project that bridges art with the community.

A month later, Bardsley, a veteran mountain biker, was taking a group of sixth-graders for a ride. She decided to take a picture of the kids, who were up ahead of her. She was riding with one hand on the bars when she hit a divet in the trail and wrecked, falling onto her bike.

She managed to get down the mountain, but learned that she broke her ribs, lacerated her kidney and sprained her wrist.

Since she was out for the season, she had the time to pursue the photo project, which had been circling in the back of her mind for several years.

She naturally turned toward the community from which she had recently been sidelined: biking.

Bardsley has been biking for more than 20 years as a competitor, coach and a Women Ambassador for Specialized. Her son was friends with Tanner Olson, an avid biker who was killed in car crash in 2011 at age 14. As a memorial, his family and the biking community have rallied to raise funds for a dedicated bike park in Missoula, which currently doesn't have one.

The BFA graduate is a painter, not a photographer, although she took a class in college and teaches her kids the basics at Sussex. 

So she developed parameters: Portraits only, on a white backdrop. No shots with their bikes or friends. Before starting a new unit at school, she develops three essential questions that the students will face.

For her project, she posed them as questions: "What does fierce look like?" "What does fun look like?" and "What does freedom look like?"

Portraits could capture these, she thought. "When people get done riding, they're in this different space," she said.

To get her pictures, she traveled to races and trailheads to take the pictures.

"People are out riding they don't really want to stop riding and talk to you and get their portrait taken," she said.

Local bikers will no doubt recognize some of the 500 people she photographed. There's Alex Gallegos of Missoula Bicycle Works. Alden Wright, a longtime figure in the biking community now in his 70s. Meg Rogosienski Whicher, the outdoor recreation specialist for Missoula Parks and Rec. Tyler Hamilton, former professional cyclist who now is based in Missoula. The only person without a backdrop is Brian Williams, who builds trails. She hiked up Marshall Mountain, where he was working on a new set, to take his picture.

There are plenty of kids: young competitors or kids she's coached, all alongside the adults.

***

Missoula Parks and Recreation is planning two bike parks for the city, according to Rogosienski Whicher. Bellevue Park, located at 39th and Paxson streets, will serve beginning and younger riders. The land was already a part of the parks system, and the neighborhood voted to have a bike park instead of a playground. Syringa Park on Lincoln Hills Road in the Rattlesnake will have amenities for beginning to experienced riders. That land was given from the county to the city for use as a park.

In an email, Rogosienski Whicher said the parks are being paid for with private fundraising from I Ride for Tanner and Friends of Missoula Parks nonprofits, plus grants and impact fees. They'll be maintained by the city through the conservation lands management program.

They need to raise $49,000 more to break ground and build the first phase: biking features and trails. The second phase will have shade shelters, restrooms and benches.

To make donations, go to missoulabikeparks.com. The master plans are posted at missoulaparks.org.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.