by Cynthia Williams
“I’m Sunny. I’m a weird creature from another planet sent here to destroy you.”
Thirty-three-year-old Sunny Nestler is wearing acid wash jeans with elastic around the ankle, black plastic rimmed glasses and a jean hat. Their* long hair threads through the back of the hat where a blue scrunchy holds their ponytail together. Farther down their ponytail is another scrunchy, but this one is yellow.
Sunny is an artist, bike mechanic, an adjunct Emily Carr University professor, and the new programs manager of the AMS Bike Co-op at UBC. They also like to make tiny neon-coloured donuts out of children’s oven-bake clay, topped with colourful clay icing, hand made sprinkles and glitter.
Donuts. Hundreds of donuts. Sunny keeps hundred of these glittery neon donuts in tupperware containers in their living room, which doubles as their art studio.
“I’ve been making them for years,” says Sunny.
The best donuts, as identified by Sunny, make it to art shows around the city. Some of these tiny donuts are on display right now in Cartem’s Donuterie downtown location. Sunny says they created habitats for the donuts — clusters of colourful paint, beads, sequins, and other adornments — to showcase the pieces at Cartems.
Months ago, I saw these donuts perched on top of tiny shelves at a show at Redgate Arts Society. I didn’t know who Sunny was then. I didn’t know that within a few months that they would be my boss and I’d be sitting in their living room/art studio learning about how they meticulously made each donut, repeating the process over and over again.
In this room there is an easel, a drawing desk, and a large art table with a milk crate filled with bike parts on top. There’s a large wooden briefcase splayed open, filled with coloured pencils. Neon splashed art hangs on the walls. Colour emerges from every corner: an assortment of coloured thread, neon paints, rainbow beads, a purple slinky on the window sill. My eyes don’t know what to focus on.
Hiding in the box of inedible donuts on the floor are more sordid things. Sunny tells me that as they repeated the shapes over and over again, the donuts slowly started mutating into other things: glow worm creatures and sea anemones. Each of the habitats at Cartems houses one of the three types of forms.
Much of Sunny’s art involves this process of repetition. They are currently working on a book, which they plan to self publish.
“I’ve always used bookmaking as a way to work through ideas that are harder to encapsulate in a single drawing. Drawing is my main medium. I always come back to it,” says Sunny.
They describe their book as a narrative sequence of drawings that mimics the DNA replication process. As they show me pages from the book, I begin to understand what they mean. They draw shapes over again, but with slight variations. In the end, something new is created.
“You replicate the forms over and over again, and mutations occur. And then some of the mutations get discarded and some of them turn into relevant forms,” says Sunny.
Their work in the bike industry supplements their work as an artist and adjunct Emily Carr professor. They initially got into cycling in their hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. As we are chatting, sitting on the floor perusing their art collection, Sunny tells me that they got into cycling simply because they needed a way to get around. While briefly living in Denver, Colorado, they met the people who were running the Derailleur Bike Collective.
“That was the first time I learned about community bike shops. I just thought the concept was really cool, that they were trying to teach people how to maintain their own transportation,” says Sunny.
Community bike shops exist all over the world and they are based on a simple premise. They work to empower folks to fix their own bikes and have autonomy over their own transportation. Sunny took the opportunity to learn bike mechanic skills and built their first road bike. By the time they finished building their first bike, they decided that they wanted to move back to Arizona and open their own bike collective.
“Even though the bicycle isn’t accessible to everyone, the concept that people should be able to have control over their own transportation is a very universal concept. So it’s really easy for all different kinds of people to get involved. So because of that you suddenly have this diversity of people involved in an interest group,” says Sunny.
They opened up “Bike Saviours” in their backyard. Every Sunday they put out a sign and slowly, more and more folks from the neighbourhood starting coming by and learning how to work on bikes.
Sunny e-mailed me some photos of the backyard collective. The work benches, bike stands, and stacks of bike parts are interspersed with palm trees. The yard of the single-story house is fenced in with concrete cinder blocks. One of the pictures shows the logo screen printed onto a purple patch, a bike chain formed into the shape of a heart with “Bike Saviours” printed in neon green on top.
“We kept the shop running out of my backyard for two more years and then finally I evicted the shop from my backyard,” Sunny laughs.
They scrounged up enough donations to move Bike Saviours into a warehouse nearby. Because the new location was more visible, the shop took off. One of their programs was a women’s night, which they started to empower women to learn how to fix their own bikes.
“There were zero bike mechanics in the Phoenix greater metro area that were women, or were not cis men. It was a 100% homogenous industry. So having a night for women was extremely meaningful in that atmosphere… It was just like, this industry is dominated by one demographic and so anything outside of that is an extremely visible act of resistance,” says Sunny.
After Bike Saviours became a stable organization, Sunny stepped down from their position as executive director.
“It went very quickly from being my thing to being it’s own entity,” says Sunny.
Bike Saviours still exists today and is now a collectively run organization. It is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year.
In 2011, Sunny moved to Vancouver to do the graduate program at Emily Carr University. After they were finally able to get a work permit, they waltzed into Our Community Bikes (OCB) and asked for a job. OCB is a nonprofit community bike shop that’s been a staple of the Vancouver cycling world.
Recently, their bike life and and their art life collided at an event called Pedalling Art: Vancouver’s 1st Annual Bike Art Auction. Sunny helped coordinate the event. They began the collaboration as an employee of OBC and by the time the event took place on November 12th, they were the new programs manager of the AMS Bike Co-op.
At the event, over 40 pieces of locally made bike-themed art pieces were sold to raise funds for Pedals for the People, an OCB program and Bici Libre, a AMS Bike Co-op program. Pedals for the People provides free bikes, locks, helmets and bike repairs to folks in the Downtown Eastside. Bici Libre provides the same services to seasonal agricultural workers who are part of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. The TFWP is widely criticized for taking advantage of migrant workers from South America, and not ensuring that workers are afforded the same rights that protect Canadian citizens from abuses on the job.
Sunny tells me that aside from this event, their bike life and their art life are separate. However, I’m skeptical because they also told me the following: Sunny used to commute to work at a cafe in Phoenix on a triple tall bike. Imagine three bike frames stacked on top of each other and welded together. Now imagine trying to ride that bike. Sunny had to climb up onto the bike before doing the mile-long commute. They stashed the bike outside the cafe while they worked. All day long people would come into the cafe and ask about it. It seems to me that their art bleeds into other aspects of their life — their work, their morning commute, and even their wedding.
Their wedding ceremony and reception was part performance art, part interactive art installation, during which their marriage was actually officiated. They spent over a year hand-beading a traditional wedding dress with rainbow beads and sequins.
Sunny and their partner Spencer stood under the dress (draped under a tree like a tent) during the forest ceremony. For the wedding reception, they built a huppa out of the dress. Huppa (or chuppa) is Hebrew for canopy and it is traditionally what a Jewish couple will stand beneath while they are getting married. They created the huppa out of the dress by building an armature inside the dress out of tent poles.
“The reception was the second part of the performance and it was a year later… We tried to recreate certain aspects of being in the forest. That’s why the dress was pitched like a tent,” says Sunny.
The huppa and cake were at the centre of a hedge maze that wedding guests had to navigate through. The last two walls of the maze were created out of Sunny and their partner Spencer’s Canadian sponsorship applications, all 200 pages printed out and sewn together to create 8 by 10 walls.
“You could read the whole application and then you turn around and you’re in this weird little room with a giant sparkly dress and all this cake underneath. My best friend was sitting on a little stump serving cake to people.”
The cake (unlike Sunny’s donuts) was a stark white, edible and did not morph into glow worms or sea creatures.