Driven to Create
By Spike Gillespie
APRIL 13, 1998: He had a green plastic head and green plastic legs protruding from the hood and top of his car. I must have passed him 20 times on the road in one week, and every time I saw him, I smiled and wondered if it were possible for him to ever succumb to road rage while driving that thing, or conversely, if anyone could summon any sort of irritation when driving within eyeshot of him. I couldn't. And it seems I'll never have the chance to ask him about his car; like me, he must have been in town for South by Southwest. There hasn't been a day that I haven't smiled thinking about his goofy statement on wheels. "People love you for it. The net gain for this is enormous." That's Bill Rainey speaking and the "it" he speaks of is car art. It's been two years since Rainey retired his art-mobile, "The Objet Dart," from the streets, but he won't ever forget the experience of being one of the few, the wacky, or as he laughingly calls himself and other car artists, "miscreants wanting attention for putting stuff on our car."
Rainey's car, though no longer road worthy, is still intact and a true wonder to behold: a 1965 Dodge Dart covered in trophies. Bowling trophies. Dancing trophies. Basketball trophies. Trophies and hundreds of little silver metal plates, glued to the car, mosaic-style.
"I put the plates on, and for a few years, drove around with these engravers that ran off the car battery. Wherever it would draw a crowd, I'd hand the engravers out and people would draw things on the plates. I could go into a restaurant and leave the engravers out with one person and show 'em how to use it. When I'd come out later, they'd still be drawing on it. Each person would show the next person how to do it."
The interior, which rivals the exterior, features more trophies, a headliner covered in hanging beads, and sundry kitsch items - a mini Shriner, faux toast - glued in various places.
Shot in 1992, Wild Wheels documents the filmmaker's journey across the U.S. to find kindred art-car owners. Harrod, who has created three art cars, took his trip in his VW bug called, "Oh My God!," named for the response people first have when they encounter the words-cannot-describe amalgamation of stuff affixed to the vehicle.
"I've spent 15 years talking to analysts and other people trying to figure out why I do this," Blank says from his home in Berkeley, California. "I did the VW in college to express my identity. It was important for me to do because I felt that I was different from other people. I wanted to get it all out in the forefront, to kind of contrast the Fifties, when people hid themselves. I think we still come have a lot of values that come out of what was formulated then. Art cars are one way in which our values are being redefined.
"I honestly don't know the big-big-big picture - what impact is this having on our culture? Are we part of a movement or are we just a trend? People say art cars will be out in two years. Then two years later they're hotter than ever before. This year, there are 240+ entries in the parade. That's phenomenal."
Blank has parlayed his art cars into his livelihood, having already created one book and two films on the topic - Wild Wheels was recently "sequel"ed on National Geographic's Explorer Channel by his Driving the Dream: Wild Wheels Two, Part A. Blank has plans in the near future to publish a second book and shoot a third movie. The subjects in his films - with cars ranging from toy-covered to jewel-covered to fruit-covered to a taxi in Denver that features lounge music, a glitter ball, a smoke machine and a singing driver - all testify that driving an art car changes your outlook on life.
Rainey concurs. His outlook has also changed. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not....
"I got tired of going to parties and being 'that car guy.' It does something crazy to you to be always looked at. That was all anyone wanted to talk to me about. I felt that I was using it as a social crutch. I'm kind of shy and didn't have enough confidence to be me on my own - I had to have some sort of gimmick." And so, after driving it as an only car for nine years, the last time it stopped running, Rainey parked it in his yard where passers-by can at least still admire the art.
Not all car artists drive their works daily. Some don't even own their cars. A stone's throw from Rainey's Dart, Rory Skagen and Bill Brakhage of Skagen-Brakhage Design are currently working on an art car commissioned by GSD&M specifically for the Houston parade. In fact, they are also working on a Dart - these cars apparently lend themselves well to the form.
Brakhage, a man of endless energy, expounded on plans for the car. Clearly he is a man of great vision, as he was describing the elaborate "after" - what might shape up to be a very Texan take on the "Big Daddy" Roth Hot Rod-toons - while gesturing at the "before" - your basic boxy '69 Dodge, sans a huge section of the hood and roof.
"The rear end is going to be jacked up really tall. When this goes up like this then all this front area's going to be exposed. We're going to put a gigantic fake engine busting out. The armadillo will be sitting inside [protruding through the roof], with the steering wheel in one hand and the gear shift in another. On the back I'm going to put a gigantic tank that looks like a nitrous oxide tank that says, 'Caution under extreme pressure.'"
While Rainey and Blank are both diplomatic, they each admit feeling less than fully enthused about art cars that are created specifically for advertisements or one-shot displays like the upcoming weekend in Houston.
"There are different camps," explains Rainey. "I was kind of an elitist - I felt like if you were going to do this that you really needed to drive your car. There are a lot of people who just dress up a car for the weekend. The float people are driving cars that are not street legal. You can do wild and crazy stuff that you can't do when you have to drive it and insure it and not get arrested. Driving it every day, driving it to the grocery store, that's performance art every day of the year. Those are the people that I really admire."
Skagen and Brakhage might be a bridge between the two styles, as both drive personal vehicles that are art cars. Skagen's van features Ben Hur paintings on one side and dinosaur scenery on the other. Brakhage drives the "Van Go" - a '67 VW bus done in honor of Vincent. "I have Van Gogh all over it. When people see it they say, 'Look at the Van Go,'" he says. "Unfortunately, it's Van Stopped right now," he amends, taking a moment of silence for his bus' current state of disrepair.
Beyond art-for-car's sake and art-cars-for-commerce's-sake, there are also low riders to consider. "They are art but at the same time they're adhering to conventions of what a car should be and how it should look," says Blank. "The craftsmanship that goes into these cars is incredible. And they people who work on them - airbrush - are really good artists. But I'm not sure it's coming from the same place."
Which would be...?
"All the people who do this are incredibly different from each other," says Rainey. "We've all got really different ideas and reasons for doing it. But there's some kind of grain of truth that's the same. I'm not quite sure whether it's some kind of desperation..." he laughs, "or a pathology...." he laughs harder.
Rainey fondly recalls the bonding of car artists at the Houston parade he no longer
attends. "There are so few of us, and we're so far spread out, and we have to
deal with so many gaping tourists that when we finally find somebody who understands
what we're doing because they're doing it, too... that's really a kind of happy thing.
All of a sudden we're not the lone nuts."
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