Making Cars Into Art

American Artisans, People
on July 15, 2007
Terry Wolf Harrod Blank is a photographer, film-maker, and artist with a passion for outrageous "art cars."

On a memorable day in 1981, Harrod Blank pulled into his high school parking lot in Santa Cruz, Calif., with his white Volkswagen Beetle sporting a new look. Blank had painted a large, colorful rooster—inspired by an art poster he’d seen—over most of the driver’s side.

That act of expression catapulted Blank into a whole new identity. His status at school changed from uncool to ultrahip overnight, and the transformation spurred him to continue modifying his basic transportation.

“That encouraged me to do more far-out things, like putting a shot-up TV on the top,” says Blank, 44. Now a filmmaker and author in Berkeley, Calif., he went on to become a creative guru to dozens of other car-decorating enthusiasts coast-to-coast—people who proudly consider themselves “art car” artists.

“People are in love with their cars,” Blank says. “A real affection develops, especially if they’ve had it for a long time. It becomes part of their life, part of their identity. It’s intertwined in who they are. Making an art car out of it has become a way of giving an old car new life.”

Beyond paint
Car artists frequently go to outrageous extremes to turn their automobiles into one-of-a-kind works of self-expression. They come from every region of the country, says Blank, who adds that turning an auto into an art car is more involved than simply applying some paint.

“Painting on a car is one thing,” he says. “Driving what you’ve painted takes it onto a whole other level. Suddenly the driver becomes part of the performance. It is very similar to the effects of a bumper sticker, only much more dramatic, because there’s a little more ‘distance’ between a manufactured bumper sticker slogan and the driver.”

Blank, the son of artist parents, has produced, written and directed two films on art cars (Wild Wheels in 1992 and the new Automorphosis), written two books on the subject, produced a TV special for PBS, hosts several art-car websites and plans to open a museum—Art Car World in Douglas, Ariz.—this fall dedicated to his passion.

In the early 1990s, before there was an Internet to facilitate online communities, Blank canvassed America the old-fashioned way, personally dropping in on 50 U.S. cities to introduce his first movie and book, and to seek out others interested in turning their vehicles into mobile pieces of art. Thanks to his grassroots effort, hundreds of artistically inclined car owners hopped aboard the art-car bandwagon, and the art car became more accepted within the greater world of traditional art.

“As far as I’m concerned, art cars are fun,” says John Cavaliero, owner of the Cavaliero Fine Arts gallery in New York. “Everything that’s done in the name of art is valid and is a legitimate expression.”

Inspiration and admiration
Emily Duffy, 49, a folk artist from El Cerrito, Calif., with a background in fashion design, cites Blank as her inspiration. She turned her 1984 Nissan Sentra into a traveling tribute to artist Piet Mondrian by covering her car with the Dutch painter’s trademark bright, bold rectangles. “I wouldn’t have done art cars if not for Harrod,” Duffy says. “He feels art car artists need to be respected and treated like any other artist. He’s the guru.”

As you might imagine, unusual things sometimes happen to art car owners. Duffy once returned to her parked art car to find a $100 bill placed under the windshield wiper—an unsolicited gift in admiration for her creation.

Trial and error with prepping, paints, lacquers, adherents and other tools of the trade are par for the course for the car artist. Tim McNally, a graphic arts student at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., put hundreds of hours over several years into his Plaidmobile—an ’85 Buick Skylark—before he was satisfied with his creation. “I ended up using different kinds of products and spray-on lacquers, and they weren’t compatible,” says McNally, 46. “I learned the hard way about what to use.

“I’m Irish,” he adds. “People look at the Plaidmobile and ask if it’s the ‘official McNally tartan.’ I say, ‘No, it’s generic.’ Someone once asked, ‘Clan Generic? Where are they from?’” Jeff Lockheed, 53, owner of the Venice Cafe, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis, started painting art cars in 1985. He cites the total commitment required for “living” your art car.

“Every time you get out in it, it’s a parade,” Lockheed says. “People want to talk to you. That’s the beauty of it. You go to the drugstore and come out and have to answer umpteen questions. I like it.”

Blank offers one final challenge. “Take a paintbrush to your old car and see how it feels. You’ll reveal a lot about yourself.”