Art Cars: American Folk Art You Can't Hang on the Wall
Jose Benavides’ vision of the Madonna appeared at Mesa Arts Center last fall. For many people visiting MAC for the “Guitars & Handlebars” season opening exhibit, she was a revelation: a 17-foot-long motorized sculpture on wheels, draped in a shroud of 500 license plates from 50 U.S. states (plus Mexico and Canada), held together by 3,600 rivets, and topped with a sculpted Styrofoam head that was painted silver with an old, cracking patina. She can be viewed full-on only from atop a very high ladder.
In other words, this is a car — but it's also conceptual art. Benavides is one of many people around the Valley creating notable "art cars" — vehicles that are modified to reflect the owner's personality or a particular theme. Modifications vary as much as the artists, or "cartists," as they're sometimes called. Some take existing vehicles and add to them or chop them up. Others build vehicles practically from scratch, fabricating everything around a vehicle chassis. The one thing all art cars have in common is that when they're done right, they draw attention — as both pieces of American folk art and quirky expressions of individuality and freedom.
Art cars have been around for decades, but a national community started to build around them in 1990s, thanks largely to events like Burning Man in Nevada (which encouraged the creation and display of "mutant vehicles"), the Houston Art Car Parade at the annual Orange Show in Texas, and Art Car Fest in San Francisco. The latter was co-founded by documentary filmmaker and art car enthusiast Harrod Blank. His most recent art car documentary, Automorphosis (2008), featured several Arizona artists, including Benavides. In 2005, Blank moved from Berkeley, California, to Douglas, Arizona, and decided to open a museum called Art Car World. The museum houses 20 art cars and is open by appointment only, but Blank hopes to open the museum to the public sometime next year.
The Scottsdale International Auto Museum, which opened several months ago, recently hosted an exhibit of cars designed and built by England-born Phoenix resident Richard Fletcher, known for his elaborate, extreme designs. The "Fletch-O-Rama" exhibit includes Fletcher's 28-foot-long "Pirate Surfmobile," a massively altered Cadillac Hearse complete with a pirate skull hood ornament bigger than the tires, tons of faux gold chrome pipes, and two tattered Jolly Roger flags mounted on top.
It's people like Benavides, Blank, and Fletcher who've helped make Arizona a notable place for art car culture. But it's not just the cars that fascinate onlookers; their creators are compelling, too. For Blank, art cars are a literal show on the road, especially when their makers drive them everywhere.
"The daily driver car takes it to a new level, because the driver becomes the performer," Blank says. "It ties the person to the vehicle. When you go to the store, you come out, and there's tons of people standing around, and they have questions, and you're part of the show. People want to know what the guy who drives the giant crocodile head looks like."
The guy who drives the primer black, Mad Max-looking '88 Chevy Caprice with all the rusted gears and spikes welded to it looks like an old movie cowboy. With his tall, lanky gait, silver handlebar mustache, and cowboy hat, Maricopa Mel looks far more genteel than some of his art cars.
This car, the "Atomic Ride," was his first art car, now the namesake of them all, here at "Maricopa Mel's Atomic Rides" at his ranch-style home just off the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, past the cotton fields and along a long dirt road just beneath the mountains.
Though almost everyone who sees the black Caprice mentions the Mad Max aesthetic, Mel says the original concept was "this was going to be a man's car." He welded various tools onto the body (including wrenches that function as door knobs), affixed silver dagger decals to the back passenger windows, and set up bright lights atop the car. There's even a barbecue grill welded to the hood. "If I hit a cow, it's already cut into steaks," Mel jokes, pointing at all the jagged spikes protruding from the front of the car. "And I have a barbecue on the hood. I'm ready to grill."
On a recent visit, Maricopa Mel had seven art cars on his four-acre property in Maricopa, where he's lived for 18 years since moving from Las Vegas. In addition to the original Atomic Ride, there's also the "Commander Car," a former Washington state police patrol car with all sorts of strange things glued to it, including some googly eyes and towel racks. There's a motorcycle exhaust on the trunk for decoration, plus a pair of silver slippers in a clear box on top of the car. The siren works. Mel bought the car from a gay man who'd glued sperm patterns down the sides. Most of the sperm fell off in the Arizona sun and Mel removed the others, but aside from that, he says he hasn't made a lot of changes. But because he takes this car to shows where a lot of kids see it, he also did remove the bumper sticker that read, "It takes balls to be gay."
Next to the Commander Car in the driveway is the "Section 8 Truck," a four-wheel-drive 1984 Chevy SUV painted camouflage with some splashes of blue and red. There's a prop machine gun, made from a chainsaw and an air-conditioning vent, mounted to the top of the truck. "Section 8 is a military term for a mental illness discharge," Mel says, adding that it's not an autobiographical reference. "This thing drives like a bat out of hell."
Mel's other art cars include an old Dodge van accented with a sun visor (made from a Chevy Caprice hood), plastic bubble windows (made from washing machines), and a bus stop bench below the front grill. There's also an old Woody station wagon adorned with a big lion's mane sculpture he made from old table legs, and his latest project, a silver, 1979 Trans-Am he calls "The Phoenix."
The Phoenix has been heavily modified to the point that it hardly resembles a Trans-Am anymore. Most of the parts are from other cars. The fenders came from Volkswagens, the spoiler is an RV airfoil with some motorcycle shocks added to it, the luggage rack's from a Ford Taurus, and the headlights are Honda. "All my stuff's made out of recycled materials," Mel says. "I try not to put a lot of money into them. It should be inexpensive. It's art."
On Tuesday evenings around 6, Mel gets in one of his art cars and cruises to the McDonald's on John Wayne Parkway, where he meets up with other local car enthusiasts, including dwarf car maker Ernie Adams. "I've taken all the cars there. I like to take them for rides," Mel says. "But everybody knows me here. They've seen all the cars. It's not like going into Phoenix, where they chase ya. When I go into town, they're behind me, they'll pull alongside me . . . they're taking pictures, and you're trying to turn, and they're jockeying around trying to see all the sights."
But that's exactly what Maricopa Mel loves about driving art cars. "The value is in people's expressions, and them wanting to take a picture," he says. "I let them. Especially the kids. They love it."
He took up art cars as a hobby about five years ago. "After I built that first one, it became like an addiction," he says. "I just couldn't stop. It didn't help that I had a neighbor who had a couple cars I could work on."
Now, Mel has a work shed filled with donated and recycled materials. He buys used cars in all sorts of conditions (never for more than $500), makes sure they run, and transforms them into one-of-a-kind roadsters. He says the cars also function as a form of dust control.
"People come tearing down this road, kicking up huge clouds of dust in front of my neighbors' houses, but when they see the cars on my property, they actually slow down to look at them," he says. "My neighbors keep asking if they can park one of my cars in front of their house."
Ever been sitting at a stop light and have a giant hot dog pull up next to you?
One of the first art cars was the Wienermobile, created in 1936 to promote Oscar Mayer meat products. Dozens of versions have been produced since the original, and there are eight Wienermobiles on the road today.
Other companies have made quirky marketing cars over the years (exterminating company Truly Nolen's yellow mouse cars; Red Bull's giant cans on Mini Coops), but some of the earliest art cars made out of sheer artistic expression came from the psychedelic '60s. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey's communal group, the Merry Pranksters, were known for their colorful, hippie-themed VW Bus, known as "Further." Blues singer Janis Joplin had a similarly-painted Porsche 356, covered in murals that included starry nights, butterflies, and portraits of her and bandmates. John Lennon had a 1967 paisley Rolls-Royce.
Much of modern art car culture sprang up in Houston during the '80s and '90s, where artist Ann Harithas (who later founded the Art Car Museum) was curating art car exhibitions. In 1988, the first Art Car Parade took place at the Houston Orange Show. An art car competition is now part of the regular festivities (Jose Benavides won a "Best in Show" trophy there in 2003 for his Madonna car).
In 1997, Harrod Blank and artist Philo Northrop founded the annual Art Car Fest in San Francisco. Blank also started promoting the art car exhibits at Houston's Orange Show and helped organize the art car theme camps at Burning Man. For the past five years, he's held an annual Art Car Show in the Douglas/Bisbee area.
"I think Arizona . . . it could be the number one state," Blank says, "definitely for art cars on exhibition. As far as working, contemporary art car artists, I'd say Arizona could be the number three state, or up in the top 10."
When Jose Benavides creates an installation, it's more than likely going to be something that moves, or that you can drive, stand on, or even add to. At the Mesa Arts Center opening weekend, he had a public art project called the "Guitar Car" parked not far from his Madonna car. Benavides created a guitar-shaped, wire mesh skeleton around a beat-up Chevy and set up a table where people designed their own guitars and then affixed them to the body of the car. About 300 people participated, and the car was finished over the weekend.
In 1999, he made a patchwork quilt car (completed with quilted hubcaps) for the First Annual Art Car Parade in Scottsdale ("and it was the only," Benavides adds with a laugh). The car, a 1984 Crown Victoria, was donated by the Scottsdale Police Department.
The Scottsdale Cultural Council asked him to do a community art car project with a Western theme. "They were thinking cow horns and wagon wheels — what Scottsdale's known for," Benavides says. "I said, 'If you really want to do what the community did in frontier days, people got together and made quilts. And that way, you include the whole community, not just the men who were out roping cows and stuff.' So that's how this came about. We set up in Scottsdale with tables and sewing machines and pieces of cloth, and people came out and did their own patches for the car."
Born in Texas and raised in California, Benavides grew up helping his father, a farm mechanic, fix and build things. After high school, he enrolled at California State University as an engineering student, but also started taking art classes. By the time he graduated in 1983, he had degrees in both engineering and art.
Benavides came to Arizona and worked as an aerospace engineer for more than a decade before going back to art school. The Madonna car was part of his thesis for his master of fine arts degree at ASU in 1996. He re-created Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper with wood and tires, placing tires within tires to create a kinetic effect. There was a handle connected to a shaft and motor, and people could crank it to make all the tires rotate.
"They would squeak and rattle like the disciples talking and whispering. I did that piece at the end of the room, and so the natural progression was the Madonna, who brought light to the last supper," Benavides says. "But her headlights were the only lights in the show. People would walk across in the shadows and would become part of the art. On the floor, we had two inches of ground-up tires. People would walk on it in the dark, and it made them aware that they were there. Mentally, they became part of the art."
At his home studio/garage in Chandler, he's making a sequel to the Madonna car — a Virgin of Guadalupe car. He designed an electric winch for the car that will allow him to stand it on end. "I already built the chassis for it, and I started building the body of it," he says. "The license plates on that car are going to be international. I have Thailand, Germany, Ecuador . . ."
Most of the license plates he uses are donated. "The next car I'm building is going to have somebody's name scratched on every plate," he says. "Everybody that donates, I want to have their name, kind of like graffiti — another form of communication. What I'm short on are Mexican license plates, which are going to make the chest."
"Every license plate is a legal document," he continues. "It's unique. And there's a story behind the car it came off — they could have gone to Disneyland, could have gotten married, gotten robbed, had a flat — there's all kinds of stories behind it. This [plate] is an American story, that [plate] is an American story — this [car] is an American history book, conceptually."
"If you want to have a good time in America, bring an old American car over, look really stupid and weird and lost and lonely, and guys, every chick in America will flock around you. If you're young enough."
Richard Fletcher's recounting his journey to America, and how he came to build some of the biggest, flashiest custom show cars in existence — things like the World's Longest Ferrari F40, the World's Largest Convertible (with a volleyball court inside), and a 40-foot-tall Eiffel Tower car.
Fletcher's having lunch at The Matador in downtown Phoenix, where his Spanish-themed mural adorns the east wall. He seems to know everybody here. He's got a cheeky British charm and a toothy grin; he cracks winky jokes with almost everyone he encounters. His receding (but still long) blond hair has the same frizzy, flyaway texture as Albert Einstein's, which adds to Fletcher's "nutty professor" vibe.
He says he "was born on Christmas Day, a long time ago — shut up," in Bath, England, and customized model car kits when he was a kid. "Always American model kits," he says. "I've always been crazy about American cars and American ladies. So it was pretty obvious that somewhere along the line, I was going to come to America."
But first, it was late '60s and early '70s swinging London for him, where he worked as a store manager and made show cars and psychedelic signs to go in boutiques. "I'd moved there from the sticks, and it was kind of like moving from Buckeye to Los Angeles," Fletcher says.
In 1971, he went to see a Stevie Wonder concert with a friend of his who was president of the Stevie Wonder Fan Club. There, he met Martha and the Vandellas, including Martha Reeves' sister, Lois. "She was 23 at the time and just lovely," Fletcher recalls. "I became a groupie, a male groupie. I hung out with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. We went to clubs — it was fantastic, we were dancing in the street and everything. I was crazy about Lois. I thought we were gonna be a team . . . and it didn't happen. She went back to America, and I was heartbroken. And I decided there was more to life than sitting around swinging London."
He paid a few short visits to the United States in the early '70s — always involving driving around some part of America, including the Grand Canyon on a custom motorcycle. "I was hooked on the West," he says. "I'd grown up with the Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and all this stuff, and now I was really there. It was all so cool. Of course, back in '72, there wasn't a small car around — maybe the odd Volkswagen getting knocked off the road, but everything was huge and American — it was so American. You can't believe how American America was."
For Fletcher, the appeal of American cars and the American road was the freedom to be as flashy as — and drive as far as — you wanted. "I grew up in Bath, one of the classiest cities in Europe, an Edwardian city, with lots of elegant buildings and everything," he says. "And everything was very old and very classy, and everything in America was gaudy, flashy, trashy, throwaway, violent."
In 1973, Fletcher and a friend decided to try driving from New York to Los Angeles, in a 1956 Rolls-Royce limo that was used for funeral processions in England. Fletcher painted it silver and black, and it became their motor home.
"It attracted attention, to say the least," Fletcher says. "Two English hippies in a Rolls-Royce limo, driving on the wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, no tags or anything, on the New Jersey turnpike going into Manhattan. Very exciting."
The limo blew up near Fairmont, Indiana, nine miles short of James Dean's grave. "We bought 10 gallons of water and just kept pouring it into the radiator," Fletcher says. "We were going, hell or high water, to James Dean's grave. We were making it. As the sun set, we passed a liquor store and bought hundreds of gallons of beer."
"We went to the cemetery, and I was able to pee on James Dean's grave," he continues. "Because I needed to go, and the most important thing was, James Dean would have wanted that. Because he was the rebel. I was only doing what he did in front of Elizabeth Taylor to calm his nerves."
Fletcher came to Phoenix in February 1979, where he became a sign maker and continued building cars. He started designing them full-time in 1986, after he went to Los Angeles on vacation and met Jay Ohrberg, owner of Jay Ohrberg Star Cars, the company that built such cars as the Ford Gran Torino for Starsky & Hutch, the KITT car for Knight Rider, the Delorean for the Back to the Future films, and Batmobiles for Tim Burton's Batman Returns.
For 10 years, Fletcher designed and built cars for Jay Ohrberg Star Cars, including a series of Hollywood tribute vehicles. One was a tribute to James Dean, a giant Porsche 550 Spyder with the words "Big Bastard" painted on it (an homage to Dean's own Porsche, which bore the words "Little Bastard"). Fletcher also designed a Flintstones mobile, a Bugs Bunny Carrot Car, and a tribute to Princess Diana with a tiara on top, orchids all around it, and butterfly wings on the back.
Fletcher says he also built cars for well-known actors, including David Carradine, for whom he made an Arnolt-Bristol sports car. He's also rubbed elbows with legends like late cartoonist and custom car builder Ed Roth, who created the iconic Rat Fink hot rod. Fletcher's cars have been shown all over Europe, but he says he's never gained much money or recognition for his work.
"I never wanted to be famous. I can brag a little bit, and say people with a fraction of what I've done have become big stars in the car world," he says. "I've done more cars, custom and unusual movie cars and show cars, than probably anybody else . . . and I'm totally unknown, because I've always wanted it that way."
"Here's the reason why," he continues. "Because if you've got a front page feature, and you have the phone ringing, and you've got to do press, you've got to do shows, you've got to do this – your time of working on the cars is very little, and in the end, you end up having a team do your work for you. I love having the hands-on experience, and creating. That's what it's all about."
Fletcher builds some cars from scratch and modifies others. He does a lot of sculpting with foam and fusing together of various parts. His vehicles take anywhere from one to six months to build. From 1999 to 2006, he built eight cars. Three of those cars — the Pirate Surfmobile, The Ice Princess, and the Gothic Coach — are on display now at the Scottsdale Auto Museum. They've never been seen in America before.
"Those cars had been sitting in the back of my property in Phoenix, covered in tarps, covered in dust, covered in dirt. Whenever they came back from Europe, I just covered them up because I was working on my next car," Fletcher says. "So for the first time ever in my life, my cars are on exhibit in America."
When showing his cars in Europe, Fletcher sometimes dresses to match his cars. When he built a tribute to The Beatles called The Yellow Submobile, he donned a uniform and a Ringo Starr mustache and became "Sergeant Fletcher." At one showing of The Ice Princess — a sleek white and blue car with futuristic pointy fins and sci-fi bubble top windows — he dressed up as "Jack Frost."
He got the costuming idea, he says, from Harrod Blank, whom he met at a car show in Europe in 1989. Blank had built a "Camera Van," covered completely with decorative lenses, flash cubes, and functioning cameras, that took and developed photos of onlookers' reactions.
"He was in Europe to promote that, and he had made this suit covered in flash cubes," Fletcher recalls. "I thought that was absolutely brilliant. They flashed all over, indiscriminately. It was just brilliant, this damn thing. He changed my attitude toward car shows, because after that, I thought, 'Okay, if you want to get the press, dress the part for the car.' So I became the pirate, I became Sergeant Fletcher."
When Harrod Blank drives an art car, people notice.
On a weeknight in mid-March at FilmBar in downtown Phoenix, Blank was on hand for a screening of his latest art car documentary, Automorphosis (Blank made Wild Wheels in 1992 and a follow-up called Driving the Dream in 1998).
But he wasn't just there — he was there in a car painted to look like the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, made by California car artist Emily Duffy. The entire car, including the hubcaps, is completely covered in blue, red, white, and yellow squares and rectangles of varying sizes. On top of the car, there's a matching boxy sculpture that resembles a city skyline. Blank was wearing a matching suit and hat.
He was joined that night by Maricopa Mel, Jose Benavides, and Richard Fletcher. They were among several Arizona art car creators Blank met while making his documentaries on the art car movement.
Other Arizona car artists include Tucson resident Diane Bombshelter, who completely covered a car in bottle caps; and Bisbee artists Gretchen Bear (creator of the Hillary Clinton-themed "Hill Car") and Kathleen Pearson, who made a hula hoop-themed Buick complete with plastic pineapples and painted palm trees.
"Bisbee's kind of had its own scene before I was even there," says Blank, who picked Douglas as the location for Art Car World partly for its proximity to the beatnik mining town.
The museum houses 20 art cars, many featured in Automorphosis, including Blank's Camera Van, the Carthedral, and the California Fantasy Van, a 1977 GMC Van covered with 5,000 brass objects, glued on top of $15,000 in coins. Most of the cars are donated by their creators or their families.
Blank purchased and started renovating the building, a former meat-packing plant, in 2005. Because of his traveling and film schedule, progress has been slow. There was a big mess to clean up, he says, including plenty of broken glass. But there's a cement floor in the showroom, and Blank hopes to have the roof done and showroom lighting installed sometime this year.
He hopes people will donate money, too, emphasizing that the museum is non-profit. And once the museum's open, he hopes people will come. Art cars, he says, are a reflection of American folk art, vehicles altered by unique people working to make an expression of themselves.
"They're breaking the mold. It's a rebellious type of art form," he says. "We believe cars should look a certain way. That's part of culture. Art cars are a wake-up call. It's freedom of expression, open-mindedness. It's not just questioning authority, but questioning reality."
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