The Art of the Wheel
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.
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"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.
Ingram, who works as a nighttime assistant supervisor for a bank and volunteers at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, made Betsy I, her first cow car, about two years ago. The transformation had to wait until the 1985 Oldsmobile station wagon was finally paid off and in her name. There are actually two Betsys. Betsy II is a 1992 Chrysler LeBaron convertible. It has the black-and-white Holstein pattern and sports a large cow in a field made of Lego blocks on the hood. The electronic horn moos as well as making nine other animal noises. On the trunk, written in script, is her moniker--Cow Goddess.
"A friend of mine gave me that name," she says, laughing. She does, admit, however, that her knowledge of cattle breeds is somewhat limited. "I'm a goddess in training."
Betsy I was closest to Ingram's heart. As soon as the car was paid off--she bought it from her dad--she hand-stripped the faux wood paneling and painted it Holstein black and white. She made ears and a tail for it. She adored driving around town and her Junius Street neighborhood with that car.
"I had a very close bond with her," Ingram says. "I used to live in her for a while. She was my very first car."
Only an uncle has seen Ingram's original cow car. And he was suitably taken aback.
"He said, 'Well don't that beat all. That's the damnedest thing I've ever seen!'" Ingram recalls. "His friend paid me $5 to moo the horn. I told my dad what I did to Betsy I. He wasn't too thrilled. But what could he do? It's mine now."
In a not so odd way, Ingram suits her cow cars. She is tall and willowy thin with a complexion that can only be described as peaches-and-cream. She is also an actress and model. The car does draw attention to her, but it isn't merely a gimmick. She believes her car looks better this way.
"I personally hate the cars out now," she says. "All the new cars all look the same, and they're boring. I did this originally because I wanted the car to look better. It was so plain and ordinary and sad."
Betsy I, however, perished a few years ago in an accident. It happened New Year's Eve. Ingram--the designated driver--was waiting at a red light. As the light turned from red to green and Ingram drove forward, a drunk driver smashed into the side of the car. Ingram says the shock was nearly too much.
"I just looked at this woman and said, 'Why?'" She pauses. "Tears were running down my face. I had such future plans for her. I was going to redo her interior." She pauses. "And this woman killed her."
As I listen to Ingram and Emmons talk about their cars, I hear something in their voices that reminds me of a phone call I made to my father not so long ago as he desperately searched for someone to fix his own car after an accident. But it was hard to find a mechanic who would work on a 22-year-old car, giving it all the loving care it deserved. Nor was it easy to find someone who would take the car seriously.
You see, my father, Richard Henry, had decorated the car with faucets.
The story goes back to 1973, when Daddy bought a big piece of his American dream--a brand new Oldsmobile Regency 98. It was a huge, lumbering thing, dark woody brown with a creamy interior. It was spacious enough to seat our family of seven and still have room to carry all our gear on long family outings to tacky Florida theme parks.
This was the time when my father says he was "into cars"--their looks, lines, textures. Personalization of the car was just his way of claiming ownership, of showing his newly adopted country that not only could a Jamaican immigrant afford this American essential, but he could make it stylish. Daddy had been in America six years then. In Jamaica, he says, he was known for kitting out his cars. His 1961 Ford Comet had extra horns, warning lights that blinked and beeped, and an alarm. After meeting my mother, Joan, he painted the car pink and white to match her school uniform.
"The natives used to think because he had a pink car with flowers in it that he was driving a hearse," my mother says.
"Yep," Daddy agrees. "But I didn't care. It said style."
When he bought the Olds 98, Daddy decided to add his own special flourishes. That's when he put on the faucets.
"Not just any faucet, Delta faucet," Daddy says. The memory amuses him. "It wasn't the whole faucet now, just the handle and the section of the faucet that holds the handle. I tried three different types before I got the one I had. It took me about three years."
The Big Car, as we called the Olds 98, had faucets across the top of the roof, tracing the line of demarcation between metal and vinyl on the roof. The handles looked like truncated Nike swooshes with knob ends. Between the faucet handles was the head of Mercury, messenger of the gods.
"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.
"You are the most visible thing on the road," she says. "If you are in a bad mood, it doesn't matter; you are still on stage performing. You need to smile, you need to wave. You're a performer in your own play."
A performer? An artist? I run those words of McKay's by my father to see if he had such grandiose notions when he drove around with faucets. The idea amuses him.
"Artist?" his heavily accented voice makes the word sound more like "ah-tist." He chuckles deeply. "No. I put them on because I felt like it. I thought it would make the car look good."
Keith Flanagan is an accidental car artist. The 33-year-old truck driver says that he hadn't intended for his car to turn out like it has, but what started out as a joke has become a blessing--a car he calls the "Joy Spreader."
"I've always loved spreading joy," he says. "This is kind of a ministry on wheels."
This one has 69 sets of wheels, to be exact. They're glued to the trunk, roof, and hood. There are Porsches, Camaros, Ferraris, and a vintage Bel Air. Flanagan gets the cars from Toys R Us for $20 apiece.
His was an accidental joy-spreading ministry. While working for Central Freight Line in Irving, he'd pick up small die-cast cars from the Texaco station on his way home and set them on the dashboard. Though he soon ran out of space, he meant to leave it at that.
Then one day four years ago, he came out to his car to find a white scale-model Ferrari glued to the hood.
"I wasn't mad, I just couldn't figure out who did it," he says. "I needed a new paint job anyway, so whoever did it figured that I wouldn't mind."
As he drove home that day, Flanagan noticed that people smiled, honked, and waved at him. At first he thought they were insane--he didn't know any of these people. Then he realized it was the car. It made people happy. He figured if one car was something that could bring joy, then "a multiplicity would be even more so."
In addition to toy cars, Joy Spreader has action figures battling on its roof. Batman is surrounded by the Joker and the Riddler. He is aided by Robin. Two scantily clad female action figures are tossed in the fray too.
"Well, you know where there are a lot of men around, they want women," he says. "So I supplied a few."
Flanagan is an intense man who believes in miracles and signs from Jesus. He's given to rapid-fire sermonettes on the benefits of blue-green algae and the advantages of celibacy (he is proud to point out that he's abstained from sex for the past seven years).
He believes that the mysterious placement of the Ferrari on his hood--which he later learned was done by a friend at work whose child didn't want the car--was the Lord's way of telling him to help bring happiness and peace wherever he goes.
"I didn't do this for attention," he says. "Anything that glorifies Him. He did say we are a peculiar people."
There are days, though, when Flanagan isn't quite up to driving the Joy Spreader--when the attention, the stares, the giggles get to be too much. That's when Flanagan hops in his other vehicle, a plain old truck that he drives on Saturdays and for errands.
"Sometimes you just don't want to be bothered," he says.
There came a time, indeed, when I didn't want to be bothered with Daddy's faucet car. At first, though, I hadn't realized faucets were a strange decorative touch. I thought the car had come that way. I didn't even realize they were faucets until high school.
Then one day I was waiting for Daddy to come get me after soccer practice. A friend was waiting for her parents with me. I heard the rumble of The Big Car before I saw it round the parking circle, chrome faucets gleaming in the hot Miami sunshine. As I said goodbye to my friend, she stared oddly at the car.
The next day, she asked, "Why does your dad's car have faucets on it?"
Faucets? I thought. They're faucets? Oh my God.
It soon got around the school that my dad drove a faucet car. I was mortified. I asked my father to pick me up later and later after games. I prayed each time that he'd be driving my mom's car.
Art cars, it seems, suffer the same ignoble ends of lesser wheels. The Texas Kid's prized truck sits among weeds in Andy Emmons' back yard. Emmons bought the truck with a friend's credit card for $500 during an auction. It needs work. Many of the pictures were missing when he got it. It doesn't run; the steering wheel is gone. He has plans for it that involve a garage and restoration. But those plans require money.
Betsy I now languishes in the carport of Sheryl Ingram's Junius Street home, covered with boxes and various odds and ends. The back passenger panel is a crumpled mess. She still has plans for it, if she can find a welder who's willing to fix it.
Dellinger says that when the Texas Tornado finally gives up the ghost--and it's getting close--he'll sell it. There's a man in Houston who owns a parking garage and buys old art cars for display on the ground floor. He doesn't pay much, about $99. But he'll tow for free.
My father and The Big Car were together 22 years. He nursed it through fuel-pump problems, brake failure, air conditioning fritzes, and rust. He began keeping it in the garage, buying a smaller car for daily driving, saving The Big Car for special occasions. The Big Car outlived at least four little cars, two hurricanes, and an attempted theft. But in the end, it just couldn't outlive progress.
Two years ago, Daddy was in an accident. The Big Car was blind-sided by a minivan. The minivan was demolished, sending its occupants to the hospital. My father wasn't hurt. The Big Car suffered extensive damage, but could still drive away on its own steam.
Daddy says he spent months trying to find a mechanic to repair it. But none would fix the whole car. "I was ready to spend up to $8,000 to repair it," he says. "But no single mechanic would fix it. They only wanted to do pieces."
In the end, he donated The Big Car to a local soccer charity. He says this with only a twinge of regret.
He drives a truck now, a red 1994 Ford Ranger. It's a plain, bubble-shaped truck that remains just as the manufacturer intended it. "I'm into the clean look now," Daddy says. "Perhaps it's because I've gotten old."
But I know that he still harbors a place in his heart for The Big Car. I showed him a book called Wild Wheels that has pictures of some of particularly outlandish art cars. There's even a faucet car in there, designed by a man in Mississippi who says God told him to clean up his act.
"Hmmmph," Daddy says. "Look at that. He just put the faucets all over everywhere. It's got no style."
He pauses. "My car had style.