The Art of the Wheel

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

"They best went with the contour of the car," Daddy says of his decision to use the chrome Delta faucets. "Mercury's helmet had those wings going off toward the line of the car in line with the two faucets. It was perfect."

For the first six months, Daddy says, no one really noticed there were faucets on top of The Big Car. Indeed, most people seemed just a bit taken aback at the sheer glamour of his machine. In addition to the faucets, Daddy had mounted metal belts across the trunk, special hubcaps of the same dark woody brown, wire curb feelers, and the head of another Roman god where the Olds emblem used to be.

But soon, all that people noticed were the faucets.
"People began to stop me and ask me, 'Is that a faucet?'" my father recalls. "Then they wanted water, or they wanted to take a shower or something."

There's a name for people like my father, Emmons, and Ingram: car artists. This car-as-canvas method of expression has been around for decades, nearly as long as there have been cars. You can follow its history in the hot rods, lowriders, surfer wagons, and hippie buses.

In Dallas, one of the best-known car artists was Willard Watson, also known as the Texas Kid. The Kid plastered his 1968 Ford Ranger with photographs of himself and his wife. A folk artist with a following in some of the city's hoitier circles, he lived mainly on disability payments and a few artist's commissions. Shannon Wynne, owner of 8.0 restaurant, hired Texas Kid to decorate the restaurant's first limousine.

"He was doing great outsider art," says Wynne, dredging up yet another lofty label for slapping stuff on a car. "He understood how materials worked in the elements. And sometimes he didn't really understand, but he put them on there anyway."

There are groups of people making artistic statements--intentional and otherwise--with their cars all over the Southwest. In Houston, they celebrate these cars in the annual Another Roadside Attraction parade. The parade has been put on for the last 10 years by the Orange Show Foundation, an artists' organization. Last year's event attracted more than 100 entries and thousands of spectators. Jennifer McKay, who oversees the parade, says it was inevitable that the parade--and indeed, the proliferation of art cars themselves--would increase.

"The joy of driving a car down the street that makes everyone smile is infectious," she says.

Art cars take the standard trope of car as status symbol and inflate it. Sure, you can get attention if you drive a black Lexus, but imagine the attention if you shaped it like a shark or affixed dozens of doll heads.

For the last three years, Mike Dellinger has gotten his attention from a 1981 Honda Civic decorated, well, sort of as if a tornado had hit it. Indeed, the car is called the Texas Tornado.

The car looks as if it had been placed in a large blender with a variety of trinkets and glue, then spun at high speed. Fish tank pebbles form two tiers of racing stripes around the car. Protractors and bamboo form a luggage rack. Empty 35mm film canisters line the sides. There are pennies, jewelry, plastic dolls, and a picture frame glued on as well. An old clock serves as one of the hubcaps. A hair dryer serves as the turbo drive.

"I was kind of working the anti-Bauhaus design theory," says Dellinger, who teaches art at Franklin Middle School. "Believe it or not, there is a design here. I actually had drawings. I didn't just start gluing stuff on."

You'll have to take his word for it.
Dellinger is a 46-year-old artist whose Pleasant Grove home reflects his and his wife Debbie's collector instincts. There is one room dedicated to hats, with all sorts hanging from the walls or sitting atop mannequin heads. Mickey Mouse memorabilia fills one room. The living room is filled with trophies--of animals, bones, and Elvis Presley.

In his back yard, he's installed a tiny miniature golf course, complete with water traps. On his car port he's created sculptures that he calls "luxury vehicles for the homeless"--shopping carts sporting the front grilles of Cadillacs and Volvos.

Some people think he drives an ugly car. Once, while he was stopped at a light, a young couple in a Camaro pulled up next to him. The man looked at Dellinger's car and rolled his eyes, making some crack to his girlfriend. It was a hot summer day, and the Camaro had its windows all rolled down--apparently because it lacked air conditioning. Dellinger says he pitied the young man, sitting in his sweltering car and getting terrible gas mileage.

"So I rolled down my window and said, 'Hey, I'm sitting in an air-conditioned car. What can you say 'bout that thing you're sitting in?' He looked at me, and now his girlfriend is laughing at him."

Right now, Dellinger is collecting monkeys to transform his wife's 1986 Honda Civic wagon into her own personal art car, The Monkey Mobile.

Car artists "want attention," Dellinger concedes. McKay of Houston's Orange Foundation in Houston adds that driving an art car is performance.

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