You don't just wake up one morning and decide to construct an art car. It just happens.
I've driven an art car for more than a year now. You've probably seen me driving it down the street — Thing Three — you know, the car covered in brightly colored Dr. Seuss characters? And if you catch it right after a special event (and laziness has slowed removal), you might also notice a large metal sign that reads "I am Sam" and a hulking platter with green papier-mâché ham and eggs made out of metal and Bondo. (My fiance, the master of all things metal, gets credit for those.) Like most art car owners, I've grown accustomed to the stares.
Contrary to the popular belief that art car owners are a fanatical group out to gain attention, most of us simply have an overwhelming desire to express ourselves. Some are looking to make a statement or deliver a moving message. This is a deep culture — one that's as broad and diverse as each individual art car artist.
Oviedo artist Carl Knickerbocker decided to paint his old Dodge truck at a friend's persistent urging about three years ago. Now he not only has a painted truck dedicated to the visual concept of industry wiping away the area's citrus, but his Honda Element sports nine sets of painted magnets.
"I got started painting that old truck and I was hooked," Knickerbocker says. "I never said, ‘Hey that's something I'd like to do.' I just had time on my hands and wanted to do something different."
Carolyn Stapleton, who drives the Stink-Bug — a VW Beetle covered in an patterned array of cigarette butts — was inspired in 1990 at a time when the art car movement, a common hobby in Houston and along the West Coast, hadn't developed much clout in Central Florida.
Stapleton's bug was old, covered in spots of rust and, like many future art cars, had little trade-in value. She was involved with a Native American group, which got her thinking about what we give to the Earth and what we take back. So she began collecting glaring pieces of litter and soon glued them to her first art car; the Litter Bug featured beer bottles, discarded bags and an assortment of garbage haphazardly attached to the vehicle. In 1999, the Litter Bug was revamped and turned into the Stink-Bug.
"My statement was not ‘Look at me.' It was ‘Look at what we're throwing away,'" Stapleton says. "I didn't know anything about art cars or art car events. Just driving my car was an event."
There's definitely a high percentage of art car owners who are artists, but we're not all artists. Stapleton has a normal day job as a nutritionist, and, well, you know what I do.
The reason for my affiliation with art cars is different. I grew up in Houston, where I went to an art car parade with more than 300 entries every year. Several people I knew, including my closest friend, drove an art car every day. It didn't seem weird. While I'd thought about creating my own, time and money didn't align.
Until February 2006, when a cheap, temporary car we owned just screamed to be a work of art. It was a 1986 BMW that had been gold at one time but by this point was mostly primer, dotted with rust. It ran like a top, but even rubbing against the car would cause further disintegration of the paint and coat you with a chalky powder. So that BMW became our debut.
We did it partly because I grew up in the family-like culture of art cars, and partly because, even though my fiance initially thought I had lost my mind, he and the kids conceded that they loved the work. It became a great family project. What's most important to me is making a statement about our country's overconsumption and how it causes us to become slaves to the automotive industry. It's a snub to automakers that try to convince you to buy another car before the one you have has been paid off. And it's proof that something old can be reused, recycled and turned into something beautiful.
My BMW art car is still my daily driver and can be seen most days in the Orlando Weekly parking lot. You can see others around town, too — I know of at least eight cars in the area.
"It's really become a much more accessible art form. It puts art in the hands of the common people," Stapleton notes. "People are becoming conditioned to see automobiles that are a little different."
Awareness of art cars has magnified significantly in the last decade. Spectators flock to organized affairs, which also have grown substantially in recent years. An upcoming Art Car Night in West Palm Beach (April 19; www.clematisbynight.net) and Mount Dora's fourth annual Art Car Weekend (Aug. 18-19; www.mtdoraartcars.com) draw hordes of onlookers, who come to watch the parade, talk to artists and contribute to charities (a central component of nearly every art car event.)
There's a wild array of cars and contraptions at these events — from guitar motorcycles to cars decorated with glued items, as well as seriously altered cars, like the one I saw that had two different front ends welded together and could be driven using either steering wheel or both at the same time.
There are divisions and hierarchy. For instance, there are inventions that some might say "barely count," such as cars that are professionally altered or merely decorated with chalk. "There is a bit of snobbery, but if the idea is to open the gates to everyone, then they're just trying to get in the game," Stapleton says. "I think everyone is still trying to figure out what the rules are."
There is at least one common thread that runs throughout the culture — a passion for creativity and a longing to challenge conventional beliefs of what constitutes art. It doesn't hurt if you're a boundary-pusher. Those types are welcome firstname.lastname@example.org
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