The Art of the Wheel

No matter what you think, your car is not fully loaded

The summer daylight is just beginning to fade as Andy Emmons' pickup rumbles down a quaint residential street toward downtown Waxahachie. There isn't much traffic this evening, but what little there is gawks as Emmons goes by. Passing drivers do a double-take, and the eyes of Waxahachie's porch dwellers follow the lumbering green Ford as it passes rows of bungalows.

And the truck stares back. Eighteen green plastic eyeballs peer unblinking from the front of the roof and hood.

These aren't the only eyes on board. The truck, hand-painted in varying shades of green with lightning bolts streaking along its sides, is covered with more than 100 plastic creatures. Cowboys stand near alligators, who are within snapping distance of astronauts and monsters. There are two Geronimos, sitting side by side in light green pools flanked by still more gators. "The only real way to experience an art car is to drive it," Emmons says, as yet another porch dweller gapes at the truck, then waves.

Some of the things on his truck are junk-shop specials--things he's found in dollar stores or rubbish piles outside antique stores. But many of them are his beloved childhood friends.

"That's Jane West," Emmons says later, proudly pointing to a yellow-haired cowgirl seated between two plastic horses on the front bumper. "I've had her since I was a kid. I used to have her husband too. But he's missing."

Emmons, 30, is an animated man. He looks like a surfer dude in his vintage Hawaiian shirt and longish, dirty-blond hair. Yet he speaks with an East Texas bubba twang. He's created what he calls his own "mobile sculpture" from a 1969 Ford truck once owned by his high school band teacher.

"I just went crazy," he says. "I think my truck is about the plight of Western man. At first I just painted it. But then I got some new insights and started sticking stuff on."

While the truck appears out of place on these quiet streets, it's not out of place at Emmons' home. The 1910 mail-order house is outwardly discreet, but filled inside with eclectic junk. Emmons and his wife, Erin, 23, are collectors of just about anything. There are folk art sculptures on a '50s-era side table. On the wall is a "calendar" made for Emmons by local folk artist Prophet Royal, who, rumor has it, died one morning after an all-night screaming rant about his cheating ex-wife.

Despite their shared affinity for odd stuff, it was hard for Erin to get used to Emmons' emerging artistic statement--his car. Especially when it was their only means of transportation.

"It was pretty stressful," Erin says, laughing at the memory now. "First of all, there is no air conditioning. Then people are always looking at you. You can't have your privacy. You can't drive down the road anonymous. You are totally on display."

In a way, that's the point, Emmons says. To get noticed. Emmons says he's an artist. He carves tiki poles from chunks of discarded wood, creates complicated line drawings, and even builds driftwood sculptures in his back yard. What pays the rent are his stints working as an actor for places like Scarborough Faire or Screams. The truck is his calling card.

Emmons says he grew up around decorated cars. His parents owned a truck shop in the '70s when the "trucker-as-hero" craze was in full swing. Truckers were always looking for some fancy doodad--mirrored mudflaps, shiny chrome for the cab. His family, while liking the concept of his fantastically embellished old Ford, haven't embraced the idea for themselves. His mother drives an old Cadillac. Once, on her birthday, she threatened to cover it with rhinestones. Emmons says she still hasn't done it. Pity.

If cars are status symbols that shed insight on the personality of the driver, then what does Emmons' car say about him?

"That I never grew up," he says with a laugh. "I don't know. A lot of people say things about it: that it's racist, that it's some crazy redneck thing, that it's apocalyptic. But most people go, 'Wow, this is cool.'"

Sheryl Maria Ingram's car is a tribute to her first pet, Big Red, a cow.
While living on her grandfather's farm in Alabama, it was her job to feed the chickens. On her way, she'd always stop in the strawberry patch to gather a few treats for Big Red. Then one day as she made her way to the coop, Big Red was gone. She was heartbroken.

A couple of weeks later, over Sunday dinner, her brother looked her straight in the eye and said, 'Mmmm, Big Red sure tastes good.'"

As she tells this, Ingram, 23, looks down demurely. The memory of losing her friend is still a bit painful. She's dressed in her summer wear: black and white cow-print shorts, a crop top, and hightop shoes. Her auburn hair is held back in a cow-print headband. Her cow earrings catch the sunlight from a nearby picture window. Ingram can't bring herself to say the B-word--beef.

"We were," she says, "having roast cow."
Her family didn't realize how attached she was to that cow, she says now. But the experience changed her. Soon afterward, she made a vow never again to eat cow. But it would take a few years and a move to Texas before she could pay cows proper homage in the form of Betsy the cow car--and her new identity as the Cow Goddess.

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