Road Show: Art Car fans celebrate the surreal

Ev1.Net Art Car Weekend featuring Everyones Art Car Parade is coming to the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art May 7 through 9.

Ev1.Net Art Car Weekend featuring Everyones Art Car Parade is coming to the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art May 7 through 9.

Houston Chronicle

Tim Johnson stood on a rooftop in downtown Houston, surrounded by skyscrapers and wearing a fox and coyote loincloth he had made himself.

"It's amazing. When you look for roadkill, it's unbelievable how much there is, " said the man from Bisbee, Ariz. "On the trip down I saw a lot of good hides but didn't have time to stop."

It's not every day that a nearly naked man can stand on a rooftop in a big city, looking like an urban Tarzan and talking about roadkill, and not attract much attention.

But this is late April in Houston, which means that the high holy days of funkiness are upon us. Art Car-related events have been attracting the freaky, the funky, the folksy and their followers for a week already. Today the major obligation of the faithful is to attend the Art Car Parade at 1 p.m.

The rest of the country may have the nation's fourth-largest city pegged as a conservative chunk of the Bible Belt, but what other place devotes nearly a month to the celebration of the surreal? (Next stop: the Hair Ball.)

Johnson and girlfriend Gretchen Baer pulled into town in time to attend the Art Car Ball at the Allright Parking Garage on Main Street Thursday night. They drive a purple vehicle called the "Funk Ambulance, " a rolling disco on wheels that plays a passive role in the search for roadkill. Today's parade will be the high point of a weeklong journey that joined it with Art Cars from other parts of the country.

"It was like a rock fest on wheels, " said Kathleen Pearson, an artist who has a pink trinket-encrusted car called Love 23. Baer calls her "the pioneer of the Art Car in Bisbee."

Bisbee is a former mining town that has attracted a large number of artists, hippies and poets. With a population of 6,288, it's home to at least three Art Cars.

The Bisbee contingent also includes a baby doll car made by artist Phillip Estrada and his family. The three vehicles hooked up in Tucson with an Art Car caravan that had begun in Berkeley, Calif.

They did yoga in the morning. They rocked with the discomobile when they stopped for gas. They even got kicked out of the Saguaro National Monument by cops, said Pearson, wearing a pink dress that was a sartorial expression of her plastic toy-dolloped pink car.

A man wearing a gray suit and a skintight blue mask studded with fake jewels that covered his entire head and had a video camera poking out of one of the eye holes rolled up to Pearson on skates and zoomed in.

"Is that Harrod?" she asked, eyeing him warily.

The masked videographer rolled away, swirled and zoomed up to her face again, the lens almost in her nose.

"I think it's Harrod, " she said.

Harrod Blank created the "Camera Van, " which is rigged to take pictures of spectators, she explained. Blank introduced her to the Art Car culture, she continued. He has a phone in one of his cars that rings loudly. He'll pull up to another car, answer the phone and say, "It's for you, " handing the phone out the window.

He's famous on this Art Car caravan trip for riding atop the "Camera Van" at 55 mph shooting video footage. He accidentally played an active role in the roadkill equation when the Camera Van hit a deer at 2:45 one morning.

The Bisbee faction's Estrada family - Phillip, Colleen and 3-year-old Gypsy - worked on their baby doll car for two months. The dolls are rather cute, yet rather macabre.

"Negative-minded people may have weird feelings about it, "

said Phillip, whose non-car artwork has been reviewed by the Washington Post. But most people get a kick out of it.

What happens to the dolls if it rains?

"If it rains, they get wet, " Phillip said. "And then they dry."

Here are some other bulletins from the Art Car Ball:

With her intimidating, Kathleen Turner kind of beauty, Rebecca Bass stood in front of her latest Art Car creation looking more like a movie star than a middle-school art teacher in a $20 dress.

"Feel it. It's plastic, " she said.

Her latest car - inspired by the movie "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and constructed by the seventh-grade art students at Gregory Lincoln Middle School in the Fourth Ward - is a spectacularly colorful and intricately beaded concoction topped by a giant sneaker.

Bass said she had been having a hard time coming up with an idea for the car this year.

"Plus, " she said, "you have to be thinking about what people have (that) they will give away."

Hence the primary raw materials: shoes and Mardi Gras beads.

The giant sneaker was put together with a variety of materials, some with an interesting provenance.

"The (school) painters said they couldn't give me a dropcloth, " she said with a confident smile, "but they wouldn't miss it if it were gone."

"Dot was washing dishes and thinking on the suds, " said Poppy Luce of her Art Car partner, performance artist Dot Comma, and how their new vehicle came to be.

It took the pair 72 cans of house insulation to create their sudsmobile, dolloped with rubber duckies and sporting a suds-filled pool in the trunk. It looks like an atomic tube of toothpaste gone amok, or maybe a meringue just starting to turn.

Poppy and Dot's friend Juan Salazar, a triathlete loan officer with a college degree in sculpture, will ride in the tub in the parade.

"If it rains, I hope it's warm, " he said.

"We redid the dog biscuits because the weevils got to 'em, " E.

Doris Lee explained, standing in front of her "BulldogMobile."

The dogmobile won the Judge's Choice prize at last year's parade. But then Lee had to scrape off the car's pest-ridden dog biscuits and start afresh. Lee's bulldogs Sebastian and Rye Lee, one of whom attended the ball, provided artistic support during the re-creation. The current car sports 3,040 dog biscuits and 12,160 "jewels."

"Rye Lee didn't come tonight because, you know, he was tired, "

said Lee. "He's not a night person like Sebastian."

This will probably be the last year for the "Fridamobile, " which has to be the only Art Car ever driven to the airport to pick up a pair of investment bankers, but who knows?

Creators Marks and Barbara Hinton feel it's time to redo the 18 1/2-foot 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. For now it's still covered with votive candles, more than 100 images of artist Frida Kahlo, an altar and a shrine that lights up on the roof.

If they decide to redo the lighting on the car, though, they could be in trouble. That member of the design team is, um, unavailable for a while.

"We're hoping nothing goes wrong with the electronics until he gets parole, " said Marks.

"Roadside Attractions: The Artists Parade" is organized by the Orange Show Foundation, which calls it "the only large-scale parade of radically decorated cars in the nation."

About 200 vehicles - hearses, cars, trucks, bikes and other rolling contraptions - will participate, as well as drill teams, street performers and musicians. Starting time: 1 p.m. today at the Houston International Festival site downtown.