Hard Body

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

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.

Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
courtesy of Galerie Laurent Godin
Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
Liz Cohen
Andy Hartmark
Liz Cohen
Liz Cohen works on the Trabant — here the car is expanded to El Camino size.
Andy Hartmark
Liz Cohen works on the Trabant — here the car is expanded to El Camino size.
Cohen poses with the car at one of her bikini photo shoots.
courtesy of Liz Cohen
Cohen poses with the car at one of her bikini photo shoots.
Cohen works under the Trabant .  .  .
Andy Hartmark
Cohen works under the Trabant . . .
.  .  . and makes sure the Trabant's seats will fit inside its reworked interior.
Andy Hartmark
. . . and makes sure the Trabant's seats will fit inside its reworked interior.
Cohen's mentor Bill Cherry.
Andy Hartmark
Cohen's mentor Bill Cherry.
Elwood owner Don Barsellotti.
Andy Hartmark
Elwood owner Don Barsellotti.
This Chevy V8 engine replaced the Trabant's lawn-mower-size two-stroke.
Andy Hartmark
This Chevy V8 engine replaced the Trabant's lawn-mower-size two-stroke.

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.

"Becoming an artist was an accident," she says. "I always tell people to discourage your kids because you have to fight to be an artist. You have to be sure you really want to do it."

Tufts had an affiliation with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and required all undergraduates to take two art classes. Cohen enrolled in photography.

"George Bush the first was president at the time so I started photographing protests," she says. "I liked what was happening with the camera."

She liked it so much, she wound up changing her degree to a dual major in philosophy and ethical theory and studio art.

After college, Cohen was at a crossroads. Forced to decide between pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy or becoming a photographer, Cohen grabbed her camera and headed to Panama. She spent four years photographing transgendered sex workers along the Panama Canal, and found, in a roundabout way, the inspiration for her current work.


Panama is a country with strong economic ties to the United States and strong cultural ties to Colombia, its closest neighbor. As a first-generation Colombian-American, Cohen says she also felt very connected to the country.

"I started thinking, 'What are my responsibilities to Latin America as someone who is first generation? And what is the relationship between Latin America and the United States?'" she says. "It's a complicated relationship, and Panama is the perfect spot to look at this because it's a gateway with the canal. Panama's history is super-linked to the United States and it's linked to Colombia, so it's the perfect spot for me."

Cohen started out wanting to photograph daily life on the military bases near the canal, but quickly found herself bored. In 1996, when she began the project, the U.S. military was in the process of withdrawing troops and preparing to turn control of the canal over to the Panamanian government, an exchange that went through in 1999.

"I realized it's boring hanging out on military bases, and I realized this is probably what a military base looks like in Japan or anywhere," she says. "I thought, 'Maybe if I pretended I'm Panamanian and dated one of the soldiers, maybe that would be interesting.'"

So acting on the advice of a friend, Cohen went one Saturday night to a fence near the base, where she'd heard local women who wanted to meet soldiers tried to get dates.

There were three other people at the fence: a drug dealer, a sex worker and a hot dog vendor. Realizing there was no way the night was going to end well unless she left, Cohen started driving around the Canal Zone — an area of jungle and military bases that fortifies the canal.

As she cruised the main drag — La Avenida de Cuatro Julio, or Fourth of July Avenue ("Hmm . . . wonder who named the street," she says now, sarcastically) — Cohen passed a group of sex workers. She stopped and realized they were transgendered. They told her they were going through a large economic shift because the bases were closing and most of their clients were American servicemen.

Cohen pinpoints this conversation as the moment her Panama project came together. The street, which locals call La Avenida de los Martires (Avenue of Martyrs) in honor of university students killed there in the 1970s for taking down an American flag to hang a Panamanian flag, was historically significant. Something about the sex workers changing biological and economic environment, and the place they stood on the historic street, struck a chord with her.

"I started photographing them all the time," she says. "I started thinking about the price people pay to have acceptance, and I started making a metaphor for that, connecting to the history of Panama. Panama's behavior is kind of like that of a prostitute to the United States, but it gets the things it wanted. Panama is a lot richer than Colombia. There's not a civil war in Panama like there is in Colombia. It's interesting the things you give and the things you take."

She worked on the project for the next four years, going back and forth between Panama City and San Francisco, where she'd begun her master's of fine arts at the California College for the Arts (formerly the California College of Arts and Crafts). She got to know her subjects extremely well, visiting their homes and spending countless hours on the street with them. Eventually, she realized she had pushed the project as far as possible.

"Lynette, one of the sex workers, started dressing me up, and I was like, 'Okay, this has gone as far as it can go,'" she says. "What's next? Am I supposed to be inside a room taking pictures of people having sex? The exploration had ended."

But the experience sparked an idea that would eventually turn into her current project.

"I started thinking an interesting way for me to push my documentary practice would be to become part of what I was looking at," she says. "I started to think about things I'm just not supposed to be a part of and how I could become a part of it during the process of photographing it. I keyed in on building a car and becoming a lowrider."


After finishing graduate school in 2000, Cohen stayed in San Francisco, where she worked as a photography teacher at the California College of the Arts, as well as at UC-Berkeley. During this time, her interest in lowrider culture began to grow, though she was still far from wanting to build her own car. In 2002, she traveled to her first lowrider show in Fresno, California. She shot about 10 rolls of film. Her idea of becoming part of a subculture, sparked by Lynette in Panama, began to take on a real shape. She paid particular attention to the models representing each car. It struck her that some women commanded, and got, respect. Others, like a woman she photographed having her bikini bottoms pulled back to have dollar bills stuffed in, had no control over the situation.

"I remember being excited and curious watching the different ways people manage themselves," she says.

With the idea of building a lowrider and photographically documenting the process now fully formed, Cohen had to overcome one huge obstacle: cost. On her teacher's salary, she was barely able to afford living expenses, let alone a car. When a close friend invited Cohen to do the inaugural show at his gallery Spanganga, she jumped at the opportunity to publicize, and raise money for, her new project.

"I work on long-term projects. I wanted to announce the idea with something that was a piece and at the same time generates money for getting the car," she says. "So we turned the place into a bikini car wash for a day."

She hung prints of the woman she'd photographed in Fresno having her bikini pulled off. For the exhibition, which was part photographic display, part street performance art, Cohen donned a bikini, charged $10 a wash, and had a friend sell hot dogs and Polaroid pictures of her posing with car wash patrons. She didn't make much money at the show — definitely not enough to buy a car to work on — but she says the project foreshadowed what was to come.

"I was thinking a lot about an honest desire for love and affection and how you get people to pay attention and help you," she says. "It's tough to raise money for a project, and it's tough to get shows, so I think the piece was a reflection of what was going on in my life at the time. I was like — 'There you go. Buy this.'"


Though Bikini Car Wash announced Cohen's intentions for the project, she didn't wind up purchasing a car until she went to Stuttgart, Germany, on an artist residency program at the Akademie Schloss Solitude.

She originally thought she might use a Mercedes or a Porsche, since both are manufactured near where she lived during her residency. The Benz was way out of Cohen's budget, and she thought a Porsche was just a little "too luxurious." Leaving the car idea in the back of her mind, Cohen worked on other projects, until one day, while visiting Berlin for a group exhibition she was part of, her dream car putt-putted into her life.

"I was hanging out with this guy, and he was like, 'Check it out. Do you smell that? A Trabant is coming,'" Cohen recalls. "They run on a mixture of oil and gas so it makes a lot of pollution. I was like, 'Holy shit, what is that thing?' I was like, 'That's the car. That makes so much more sense.'"

She persuaded her residency sponsors at the Akademie to pay for the car. After scouring Berlin's version of Auto Trader, Cohen found one she liked: a 1987 601 Deluxe Trabant, for about $400 (the real expense was shipping it back to the States, which Cohen estimates at about $3,000).

To the shock of her German counterparts, Cohen decided to drive the car from Berlin back to Stuttgart.

"For 30 years, they drove these things around. I was sure it was going to be okay," she says. "I had this boyfriend at the time who was freaking out, like, 'Liz, ve can not do dis!' Of course, after I fought with everyone, I was like, 'I'm fucking driving this car.'"

By the time she bought the car and got it on the road, it was dark. And raining. Right away, the windshield wipers broke. By pretending to be a member of the German version of AAA — quite a task for someone who doesn't speak any German — Cohen was able to get some new wipers. Disaster averted, she was on her way, at 40 mph — grinding down to 20 when she headed uphill.

"It took me twice as long as it would normally take to drive from Berlin to Stuttgart," she says. "And it's on the Autobahn."

Although the Trabant's rarity and small body size have caused Cohen several mechanical headaches, she says the project really couldn't have happened with any other car.

"You can pick cars to represent national values," she says. "This car is immigrating, and it's one kind of thing trying to turn into another kind of thing. East Germany went through a big transition [out of communism]. A lot of things fell into place — that transition from a socialist system to a capitalist system and the change in products and values. It seemed like a perfect journey for this car to become an El Camino."


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.

"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?"

Cohen knows her project seemed totally off the wall at first: "They thought I was crazy."

But they took her in and named Bill Cherry her mentor. Cohen credits her project's success to Cherry's help. "I couldn't have done this without Bill," is something she repeats over and over. The first order of business, they told her, was to strip the car.

"They gave me some tools to use. It must have been hilarious. I used all hand tools — didn't think to use air compression. I didn't ask for help," she says. "I think that was a rite of passage."

Cherry was gruff with his new protégée at first. This is a man with a toolbox taller than Cohen, filled with thousands upon thousands of tools. He has 35 years of car knowledge behind him, and he doesn't exactly have time for amateurs.

"She didn't have a clue," he says. "I laughed right in her face."

Taking a drag of his Marlboro Red, Cherry remembers the first time he saw the car.

"It was a pile of parts and stuff, and they were like, 'This girl wants you to help build this car,'" he says. "Uhh. Okay. Whatever. What's it supposed to do? 'Well, it's going to expand and contract and go up and down.' I was like, 'I don't have time for this. Go down the street.'"

But he came around after someone told him the project was impossible. Cherry owns tools so specialized, one of them is made just to fix the door handle of a 1927 Pontiac. He's been "taking shit apart and putting it back together" since he was a kid growing up in Michigan. And he finds the word "impossible" rather stupid.

"The only thing that's impossible is convincing yourself that you can do it," he says. "It's simple common sense. You look at it and go, 'Okay, this piece has to go right there. Why doesn't it go there? This piece is bent, this piece is missing.' Whatever. This piece still has to go there. If you just use some common sense, you can figure out how to get it put there."

With Cohen, he's sarcastic and pretends to be irritated by her questions, but he's clearly warmed up to her — "She's all right," he says.

Cohen clearly admires Cherry. She shows off his toolbox, opening each drawer with reverence.

"Check out this organization," she says. "If I take this out and put it back over here, it will be back the next time I come back."

Cherry lets her use his tools — a big deal since most body men spend a lifetime, and a ton of money, buying their own.

It's not just the tools that Cohen appreciates. She's positive that if she didn't have Cherry's knowledge to help guide her, she would never finish the project.

"There aren't many people in cars that have the skills Bill has," she says. "Bill isn't just a body man. He's a master mechanic, an engineer. He can build a car from the ground up. It's insane that I hooked up with a place that has someone like him."

The two have bonded to the point that when Cohen went to Stockholm for an exhibition of her work in progress, Cherry came with her — though he insists he's not into art, especially the kind on display at Färgfabriken.

"They had this thing in the ceiling that dripped wax. You take a ceiling fan, put some candles on it and light 'em," he says. "It'll do the same damn thing."


Even Cherry will admit Cohen's learned a lot since she came to the shop, but both the car and her technical knowledge still have a long way to go. Plus, the sheer complexity of the project, and the parts needed for the car, has thrown up some major hurdles.

It's about a week before she leaves for a French gallery showing of her work, and Cohen is excited. Today she is picking up her drive shaft — a part she's been waiting more than a year to get. The problem she's having is one common to her project: She's attempting to combine two cars that couldn't be more different. The Trabant was mass-produced as the "people's car" for communist East Germany. It's tiny and economical. It runs on a two-stroke engine. It putts around at about 40 mph, tops. The El Camino, on the other hand, is the all-American pussy wagon — tons of space, a big engine, the works. This leads to some obvious mechanical snafus as Cohen works to merge the cars. So far she's managed to weld a custom chassis that transitions the car from Trabant size to El Camino. Sliding on a double acting hydraulic, the car grinds open, exposing a complicated network of hoses and cables. Cohen has yet to attach the car's El Camino side panels, a mechanical feat that's going to take some creative thinking, considering the limited amount of space available when the car is in its Trabant form. She's going to have to find a way to get the panels to accordion in on themselves when the car is a Trabant, yet expand smoothly when the car becomes an El Camino.

The act of combining two cars, even two cars with more in common than the El Camino and the Trabant, is unique. Cherry says he's never heard of anyone attempting such a project before, and at every car parts shop she visits, Cohen's explanation of the project is met with either a snicker or a blank stare.

Example: The Trabant has front-wheel drive; the El Camino uses its real wheels. So when the car transforms, it needs a drive shaft that can expand with the car and turn the El Camino's back wheels. Normally, finding the part isn't difficult, but Cohen needs one that can expand, or "telescope," three times as the car gets longer. After a year of false starts, she's finally found a shop — Dick's Drive Shaft in Phoenix— willing to play along. She calls her contact, Ray, to make sure the part is ready.

When she gets off the phone, she says he sounded a little strange.

"I hope everything is okay. Ray is being weird," she says. She's worried there might be something wrong with the part.

She climbs into her red 1989 Honda Prelude — a car she's had since she was 16, air conditioning not included — and cruises to the shop to pick up her part. Though the project is centered on building the car, Cohen actually spends her time on most days driving all over town, trying to find parts.

"It's unusual stuff I need," she says. "If you go to Auto Zone and say, 'I need a brake-light switch,' they say, 'What year is your car?' And you just can't describe it. They just want to punch it into the computer because they don't know the parts. It's hard to describe that this isn't a car that has a year and a make."

She prefers shops like Dick's, which specializes in drive shafts, that sell only very specific parts catered to people who live to work on cars.

She parks outside the drive shaft shop on McDowell Road near a string of other car parts stores Cohen has become intimately familiar with.

"I can't wait to see this crazy thing," she says.

But then she does see it, and it's not what she expected. For starters, it weighs 32 pounds, which will seriously slow her down on the road.

"What's it like when it's open?" Cohen asks Ray, wondering what the shaft looks like fully expanded.

He hesitates for a second and tells her, "It flutters a lot."

This is not what she wants to hear.

"I need it to work," she says. "If I've got a V8 and I can only go 20 mph . . . ," she trails off in frustration.

In less than a minute, she's on her cell with the factory that made the shaft's parts, leaving a message for her contact on both his office line and cell phone. She will call him back, on both lines, twice a day until she gets him to agree to redo the parts.

"I knew this was too good to be true," she says. "When this drive shaft actually happens, I'm going to throw a party."

In its current condition, it's hard to picture the Trabant taking Cohen anywhere, at any speed. Back from her failed drive shaft mission, Cohen surveys the area to figure out what to do next.

"That was the first setback of the day," she says. "Let me tell you, there will be more."

Without the drive shaft, she's kind of screwed — she can't start building the car's expanding and contracting side panels until she makes sure the shaft is the right size. Funny, because although the shaft is tough to get, Cohen says installing it will take about two minutes.

"It's, like, two bolts," she says.

Cohen has gotten used to frustrating setbacks, and now tries to look at them as just another part of the art.

"The piece really is a process piece," she says.

And she's done some impressive mechanical work so far. She's custom-built more than half the car herself.

With the flip of a switch, the car expands — with a grinding robot sound — from Trabant to a full-size El Camino. The front and the rear wheels are equipped with hydraulics so she'll be able to bounce in true lowrider fashion once the car is drivable. She welded the car's custom chassis herself, installed the hydraulics herself, and rebuilt the steering mechanism, electrical system, fuel brake lines and firewall herself.

Still, she checks in with Cherry before doing any major work on the car, almost like a daughter reporting to her father. (One day, they even wore identical black Dickies.) She's at the shop every day that it's open, and can only use Cherry's expertise during the regular business hours he works — she could never afford to pay him outside of that, and feels fortunate that the shop lets her work free of charge.

When she tells Cherry about the drive shaft disaster, he just rolls his eyes. They decide the best thing for Cohen to do is finish fabricating the console. She's only got a few scraps of metal left to fashion and attach to it before that part of the car is done.

Although her day at the shop began at 7 a.m., it's two and a half hours later — 9:30 a.m. — when Cohen begins actual work on the car. Using a machine called a fingerbreak, she bends the metal for her console to fit when she attaches it. The work is slow and precise, but she moves with confidence. She wants it to be clear she did this work herself — something she hopes will increase her credibility in the lowrider world.

"A lot of people are like, 'Oh, she didn't build the car, her boyfriend built the car.' I don't want any of that shit," she says.

Cohen is coy about her personal life ("it's irrelevant," she says), but boyfriend or no, there's no way anyone else could possibly take credit for her work on this project.

Later in the week, Cohen, in blue Dickies and a tee shirt with "Liz" airbrushed on the back, is still stalled by the missing drive shaft. Her first order of business for the day is to try to get it reordered. She leaves a series of messages for the man handling her drive shaft parts in Michigan. The day before, she says, she had three different conversations with him.

She calls his office line: "Hi, Sean, it's Liz Cohen. I was just calling to see about the spline shaft. Ray told me he hasn't talked to you yet. So please call him today so we can get the order in. Thanks."

She hangs up. And immediately dials his cell phone: "Hi, Sean, this is Liz Cohen . . ."

After the daily round of phone calls, she runs to check her e-mail. She's leaving for her gallery show in Paris in a few days and there are a ton of last-minute details to take care of.

"This car is like two full-time jobs," she says. "The administering of it and buying the parts, and then working on it. And then there's the job of being an artist, which is another full-time job."


Although the car is far from completion, Cohen has scored two European gallery showings. The first, the one in Stockholm, was curated by Jan Aman at Färgfabriken. Cohen's exhibition was the centerpiece of a three-month symposium on gender issues. Aman met Cohen through Creative Capital and says he immediately wanted her to come to Stockholm.

"Her work was fantastic and would provoke a discussion about gender," he says. "Liz's image of herself as the bikini model takes one point of view, but when you add the other point of view of her being the owner of the car and being the person working and welding, it becomes much more complex. It was very provocative."

Aman was so impressed with what Cohen was doing, he even hired a personal trainer to work with her while she was there. He also built her a studio inside the center where she was able to work out with the trainer and also work with Cherry on the car (though he'll tell you the conditions were less than desirable — "Them people had absolutely no understanding of what all this was. We get there and they have no clue what a tool is, let alone what we were going to do with it," he says, grumpily).

Cohen says her time in Sweden provoked some strong feelings. Cohen's bikini photos and the fact that she was learning her mechanical skills from a man particularly upset one older woman.

"One day she watched me work for six hours. She just sat in a chair and watched me. At the end of the day, she said, 'I know you don't want to be in those photographs,'" says Cohen. "I just listened to her. I think that's part of it."

Cohen finds the reaction to her bikini photo shoots interesting and likes that it raises questions that are not easy to answer.

"The thing with the bikini model is, I didn't invent it. It's already here. I didn't reinforce it, it's already been reinforced. You're on a losing battle if you think you're going to be able to eradicate bikini models," she says. "To me the most interesting thing you can do is subvert that and play with it and use it whichever way you want to use it."

While she was in Stockholm, Cohen met with French gallerist Laurent Godin, who first spotted an early version of her work at the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco.

"I was impressed and curious," he says. "I visit her in Stockholm and I was not disappointed at all. I only know her through the photos in the bikini, sexy poses. I did not know who I'm gonna meet. But I discover a very strong person. I also discover someone who has a strong and more complex conceptual approach of her practice than a quick look of the photos may introduce."

Although Cohen's project is certainly unique, she's not the first artist to create art using a car. In 2004, internationally respected Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm completed his "Fat Convertible," currently on display at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna, Austria. For the piece, Wurm warped and bloated a red Porsche using Styrofoam and fiberglass, conceivably to make a connection between wealth, power and obesity. In the lowrider world, an Impala called "Gypsy Rose" (you might remember it from the opening credits of Chico and the Man) has reached iconic status, owing much of its celebrity status to its beautiful body work and paint job.

Yet in spite of the international excitement over Cohen's work, she has yet to gain much recognition locally. Most local art scene players know her name and have heard about her project, but according to Greg Esser, president of Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, the problem isn't that her work isn't appreciated. It's that, in spite of huge leaps forward, Phoenix still isn't a hub for contemporary art. Gregory Sale, visual director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, agrees, though he thinks Cohen will soon get the local recognition she deserves.

"I do imagine it is only a matter of time before Liz undertakes a major exhibition in Arizona," he says.

Still, he worries that there just isn't enough support for contemporary artists like Cohen in Arizona.

"There is real growth in the number of artists producing high-quality work in Arizona, but as that number increases, the financial support and presentational support hasn't grown as quickly," he says.

But as far as breaking into lowriding, Cohen's sexy image, and the fact that her car — if she pulls it off — is so strange, is only going to help.

Johnny Lozoya has been a lowrider since the '60s — he even worked for the magazine once upon a time. These days he puts together Arizona's largest lowrider show. When it comes to lowriding and custom cars, the man knows what he's talking about. And he's impressed with Cohen's project.

"What she's doing is basically icing on the cake," he says. "What this young lady is doing, it's something new. That's something great because it answers everybody's question. You can be the model, you can be the builder, you can be the creator. Whatever."

Although the car means something different to everyone who sees it — for the guys at the shop, it's "just" a car, for the lowrider world it's an interesting cultural contribution, for the art world it's an innovative process piece — Cohen hesitates to put the project into a box, or state a specific goal for what will happen once the car is done.

"The goal of the project is just to go through the process and see what happens," she says. "In terms of the project, any outcome, whether I'm accepted or not, is still a success."

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