Hard Body

Liz Cohen's infiltrating the lowrider world — and calling it art

In 2004, Cohen returned to the United States, Trabant in tow, and parked it in a shop in Oakland, where she proceeded to get very little done. She learned a lot about lowrider culture, but almost nothing about cars — the shop just didn't have the resources to really help her. Because the mechanical work on the car was moving slowly, Cohen focused more on her physical transformation from scrawny photographer to sexy lowrider model during this time.

Cohen has always been thin, so there was no drastic weight loss, but she needed to bulk up her muscle tone.

Cohen's mentor Bill Cherry.
Andy Hartmark
Cohen's mentor Bill Cherry.
Elwood owner Don Barsellotti.
Andy Hartmark
Elwood owner Don Barsellotti.

"When you look at lowrider magazines, I'm too skinny for it," she says. "It's more chunky, more cleavage. I don't need to look like a body builder, I just need to look hot."

And through a strict routine that included intense cardio and weight training and a protein-packed diet, she reached her goal. The bikini theme, beginning at her car wash in 2002, has stuck as a permanent part of the project.

So far, Cohen has directed three bikini photo shoots with the car, with one more in the works. When the car is complete, she plans to turn the bikini photos into a calendar to sell at car shows, while also using them as part of the fine-art exhibitions that will surround the Trabant. Though she's not the one pushing the button on the camera, Cohen exerts total creative control over each photograph. Everything, from the setup and lighting of the shot, to the hair, makeup and wardrobe, is positioned exactly the way she wants it. (See the photos with this story for examples.)

In her photographs, Cohen certainly owns the bikini model attitude. She poses easily in a hot pink thong and stilettos while welding or holding a grinder tool between her legs. Still, the thought of modeling in public at a car show makes her a bit uneasy. The photo shoots are a lot different from the modeling she'll do in real life — she won't be able to stuff her bra at car shows, nor will she be able to direct what is going on around her.

"In the studio, it's like constructing a photograph; in real life, you have to do it better," she says. "This is embarrassing, but I practice the poses [in front of a mirror]. I practice and I watch how people do it and own it and not be shy, but I don't know what it will be like when I really do it."

While she worked on her body, she continued to try to figure things out about her car. When the Oakland shop closed down in 2004, Cohen had to scramble to figure out what to do. She knew she needed to find a way to spend more time working on the car. She was still in San Francisco teaching photography full-time and struggling to make ends meet. So she made a big decision — she quit her job, moved back to Phoenix to live with mom, and started searching for a shop that would allow her to take up a lot of space, for a long time, for free. At the same time, she got major grant funding from Creative Capital, putting her in a much better financial situation.

Once she settled back into life in Phoenix, Cohen went on a tour of body shops. She took the phone book and highlighted every shop that had the word "custom" in its name.

"I knew I couldn't call up and ask if they would let me do it, because it wasn't just, 'Can you do this car?' It was, 'Do you know how to do this? And can I be the one who builds it? And, oh, by the way, I don't have any tools and I need you to host me at your shop and I might be there for a really long time,'" she says. "A lot of them didn't want to host me."

After visiting almost 60 other shops, she finally found Elwood.

Something about her project, and her look of desperation, struck a chord with Don Barsellotti.

"She sounded like she had a problem . . . like she was in trouble," he says in his Italian-American accent. "She needed help, so I figured why not give her a hand. I didn't know it was going to be to this extent — which is okay — and I said, yeah, bring your car over. I start looking at it and was like, 'OOOOkay . . . art? Okay. If that's what you want to call it, fine with me.' I didn't realize messing around with a car, you can call that art. I guess you can."

Barsellotti is clearly the patriarch of the shop, but he rules with a good sense of humor. Though he calls Cohen a "pain in the ass," he also says "she's pretty smart." Might not sound like much of a compliment, but he describes the shop's master mechanic Bill Cherry the same way, and around this garage, being called "pretty smart" is high praise.

"Some of the stuff she's thinking is pretty unreal," Barsellotti says. "But she learns real quick. You show her one thing and she picks it up real quick. I don't know if it's the way she studied art. As she progresses, she gets better. That could maybe be her line of work instead of art. Do they make money? Artists?"

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