Harrod Blank likes to stop his van in front of a bus stop, click
on his small public-address system, and say, "OK, everybody, say
Jaws drop. Mothers clutch small children. Grown men groan and
smile. Teens say, "Cooooool."
Mr. Blank's 1972 Dodge van is covered with cameras, 1,705 of
them, glued carefully in rows and designs on the van's sides, back,
and front. To sidewalk crowds from California to New York, this
apparition of van-dalized cameras is at first seen as the work of
some wacko with too much time on his hands. Then people warm to it.
Mr. Blank's enhanced van, and hundreds of other cars decorated
with unlikely objects or painted with murals or swirls by their
owners, are an American phenomenon: the Art Car movement.
"I think the art cars are the quintessential public art of our
time," says John Beardsly, an art curator and writer in Washington,
D.C. "The artists meet their audience on the street. No
intermediary, no dealer, no curator. It's very democratic."
Something is being touched by the art- car artists that springs
from the ancient idea of adornment and individual expression, but
is communicated through today's icon - the automobile.
"I see art cars as sort of guerrilla theater," says Rebecca
Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art
Museum in Baltimore. "You build one, and literally thousands more
people will see your work than if it was in the best of galleries
for 30 days."
The Art Car movement is no flash in the oil pan. Last spring,
some 250,000 people lined the streets of Houston to see the 10th
annual "Roadside Attractions" Art Car parade. "We had to limit the
parade to 200 cars," says Jennifer McKay, the parade coordinator,
"because of the overwhelming logistics of handling the cars. But we
could have many more." In Minneapolis, a smaller version, "Wheels
as Art," attracted 50 cars last summer.
While Blank's camera van actually takes photos of the people who
stop, stare, and are amazed at the startling van, other art cars
across the nation are covered with buttons, synchronized light
bulbs, or Day-Glo yo-yos. They are splashed with plastic fruit,
planted with real, growing grass, "tupped" with Tupperware, covered
with beads, jewelry, and mirrors, or shaped like a shark.
'I'm not sure I know what it is'
Blank, the son of documentary filmmaker Les Blank, also made a
movie. He shot "Wild Wheels," about art cars and their owners, when
he drove his first art car across America. It was a Volkswagen
festooned with toys, a TV set, and other junk symbolizing American
"As I was driving around, the reactions of people were amazing,"
Blank says, "and when I took their picture, they would react to the
camera and not the car. …