By Matthew Hendley
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At 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, it's pretty quiet at Elwood Bodyworks. There's still half an hour before the workday begins at the south Scottsdale body shop, and a lone mechanic is moving around the garage near a car that is at once hideous and charming.
At first glance, this car is just a pile of rust and junked parts. The roof has been torn off, the seats ripped out. There's no steering wheel.
But inside the tiny two-stroke engine bay of this East-German communist-era relic is a shiny new American-made V8. With the flip of a switch, the car comes to life, expanding to the size of an El Camino. Another switch gets the car jumping on both front- and rear-wheel hydraulics.
The mechanic can talk all day about engines and drive shafts, brake-light switches and "servicing the shifter" just like any auto man worth the grease under his fingernails.
Except this Dickies-clad figure is not a guy or a real mechanic. She's Liz Cohen, a photographer, who has decided to build a car and call it art.
She's turning a Trabant, an East German car popular before the Berlin Wall fell, into a hybrid lowrider that transforms into a Chevy El Camino. At the same time, Cohen is transforming herself into a bikini lowrider model.
"There's three kinds of people around show cars," she says. "The people who build them, the people who own them, and the people who represent them the models. I'm hopefully going to be all three."
Though she'd never worked on an engine or considered modeling before this project, Cohen looks just as professional posing in a thong in front of her car as she does getting her hands dirty working on it. And she's managed to snag international attention, though she has yet to be offered a local museum exhibition here in the Valley. Last year Cohen's car, along with photographs of her bikini modeling with the car, was displayed at the Färgfabriken Center for the Arts in Stockholm, Sweden. In September, Galerie Laurent Godin in Paris opened a show featuring her photos.
She's received grant funding for her project through Creative Capital, an arts group based in New York City. Sean Elwood, director of grants and services for the group, says Cohen's project fit in perfectly with the kind of art they like to promote and fund.
"It had a sense of humor and an emotional center unlike anything I've seen before," he says. "The thing that intrigues me most is the transformation and going to this subculture [lowriding]. It's not a subculture you would normally think of artists going into. You start with this interesting premise, and she became more and more proud of her ability to craft this car."
Cohen's project has hinged on the generosity of others. While she gets her greatest monetary funding from Creative Capital (which initially gave her $10,000, though she can apply for more funding as the project progresses), she works, free of charge, out of a family-owned shop the kind of place with half-finished cars in the garage and NASCAR posters on the wall. Not exactly a typical artist's studio, but Cohen says the owners "get" what she's doing.
"The biggest funder really is this shop. This is what makes it happen in the end," she says. "This is a really time- and space-consuming project, but they don't fit the profile. You can go into the office and see who they are there's like NRA posters on the wall."
She's been told more than once the project is impossible and, though the daughter of Colombian immigrants doesn't seem to hear the word "no," she admits she thought it would be easier.
"I honestly didn't know what it would take to do this project. I didn't know what it would cost. I didn't know how long it would take. I just knew I wanted to do it," she says. "I thought it would take a year."
That was two years ago, and she's a year from finishing.
Liz Cohen grew up in Phoenix, a first-generation American in a large Colombian family though she insists her Latin heritage isn't what will legitimize her in the traditionally Mexican-American lowrider world. Growing up with two sisters (she's the oldest) and subscriptions to teen magazines ("I made collages on my door"), Cohen was far from a tomboy, and certainly had no interest in cars or mechanics.
When her dad died in a car accident in 1990, she inherited his camera, a 1968 Nikon. Her father loved photography, so Cohen enrolled in a photo class at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale to feel closer to him.
"It was something about trying to take some roles in the family that my father had," she says. "I really cared about the camera. I knew it was special and I wanted to use it. I wasn't interested in being an artist when I was in high school, and I wasn't a very good photographer at all, I would say."
By the time she graduated from high school, Cohen, like many other young, creative minds, was ready to get out of the Valley. She enrolled at Tufts University in Boston as an economics major not exactly the most creative discipline.