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Cover Story: Baby, You Can Paint My Car

Artcars and the local people who love them

By Christopher Kemp · February 16th, 2005 · Cover Story
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Art On Wheels
Jon Hughes/photopresse.com

Art On Wheels



I logged another sighting this morning. The first time I saw it -- an old Volkswagen van painted orange and brown with Cleveland Browns posters stuck against the side windows -- it was trundling up Hamilton Avenue in Northside under a slate-grey sky. A couple of days later, in almost exactly the same spot, I saw it clattering back down again.

And then this morning, in the rain, I saw it again for the seventh or eighth time.

A couple of months ago, I left work at lunchtime and saw it in the middle distance on Ronald Reagan highway, the sun bouncing off its roof as it moved through the midday traffic. That was sighting No. 2.

Then one morning that very same week, driving north on I-75, I glanced up and saw it receding quickly in my rear-view mirror -- a shrinking orange-and-brown smudge frozen by distance on an exit ramp. Sighting No. 3.

In my role as CityBeat's documentarian of all things weird, I'd been asked to write an article about artcars. This was the ultimate artcar.

I began to have dreams about it. For weeks I searched parking lots and drove around campus where, I figured, students who have nothing better to do than paint their cars orange and brown might be found.

I glimpsed it again a couple of weeks later. As I drove beneath a busy highway overpass it passed overhead, dark against the sky but, unmistakably, an orange-and-brown Volkswagen van. And then it disappeared. I didn't see it again for months.

By then of course, it had become my nemesis. A mysterious and elusive quarry. Like a white whale -- or rather, a bright orange and chocolate brown whale -- I expected it to surface without warning on the highway amid the chop of traffic before slipping away again beneath a shifting skyline of 18-wheelers and minivans.

As the weeks passed without a sighting, I located and met other artcar owners: a substitute teacher with a mobile greenhouse made from a hollowed-out and customized Plymouth Voyager; a commercial artist who lived in his artcar for a year; and a retired musician with a piece of Cincinnati musical history.

Spring became summer, and still no sightings. It got warmer, leaves appeared on the trees, then it got cooler again. No more sightings.

Then finally, driving home from work one day, I glanced down a nondescript side street. A dog sprawled on the sidewalk. A neat row of brick houses, with white clouds reflecting in attic windows. An orange and brown van!

I placed a handwritten note on the windshield and carefully anchored it there with a windshield wiper. A couple of days passed. It rained. No call. I drove past the van and the note was still there -- weather beaten but legible.

Finally, after a week of suspense, Cleveland Browns van owner Chris Leonard called. The wait was over. I'd harpooned the whale.

But what makes Leonard and other Cincinnati-based artcar owners take a perfectly good vehicle and alter it the way they have? Who knows?

Why would Luke Ebner decide that the gutted capsule of his bright green Plymouth Voyager is an appropriate space in which to grow his peppers? Why would Rod Boggild paint religious slogans on his car?

Are they crazy? Maybe.

Not so very long ago, painting one's car rust-brown, attaching long fake antennae and legs and renaming it The Roachster would have been considered madness. Artcar owners -- or cartists, as they are known -- were relieved when, some time in the mid-1980s, their discipline was finally named and given an air of respectability.

Chris Leonard is standing on the sidewalk, seemingly unaware that he's the owner and driver of my nemesis, the elusive orange-and-brown beast I've tracked down and finally cornered outside his unremarkable Northside home.

"It's funny to see what a couple of different colors will do to people," he says.

Leonard is speaking generally, but I'm wondering now if he saw me make a questionable U-turn on Hamilton Avenue to chase him that one time in the rain. Or maybe he saw me placing my note on his windshield a week or two later or driving past a couple of times after I left it there or taking photos of his van when I thought no one was home.

"It's a 1970 Volkswagen," Leonard says. "Some people call it microbus, some people call it transporter. I've had it for four years. I bought it from a friend of mine that followed the Grateful Dead in it, and he put a new engine and transmission in it and then parked it in a basement for five years. I bought it without looking at it."

Leonard walks around his van in the sun, talking.

"It was our tailgate vehicle," he says. "I've had nothing but fun in it. It was yellow and tan, a family project. I let my kids sand it and then I had a buddy spray it for me. I went into the paint shop and picked out the colors.

"The newest addition, the only thing I've added, is a depiction of the Serpent Mound."

Leonard, an out-of-work fiber-optics engineer, works at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown.

"Usually," he says, "I park it right there in front of the Hilton. Some people squawk at it. Usually the first conversation is, 'Browns suck,' and then, 'But, man, that's a Volkswagen. That's cool.' "

Leonard explains he painted his vehicle to celebrate the Cleveland Browns, and he pauses for a moment in the sun.

"It gets more interesting because of my path of different spirituality," he says finally. "The orange these days represents new horizons, and the brown is Mother Earth. Now I go on road trips and live in it and just have a good old time in it really."

Harrod Blank -- author of Art Cars: The Cars, the Artists, the Obsession, the Craft -- is considered by many to be the father of the artcar movement. He also made the PBS artcar documentary Wild Wheels, broadcast in 1993.

It's early evening, and Roger Reifonas parks his artcar carefully beside the road in Spring Grove Cemetery, opens the door and hops out onto the grass verge. If it looks out of place on the highway, Reifonas' multicolored van seems even more incongruous here, parked beneath two towering yews.

"I just got tired of looking at factory finishes all the time," says the Covington-based landscape gardener, who applies enamel paints directly to the bodywork of his 1992 Dodge Caravan. "I had been practicing my art and I thought: Well, if I start painting my car maybe that would make me more noticeable. I started last winter, but then the winter came and I only paint outside. I go over in Mount Adams on the street, in out-of-the-way places or whenever the urge hits me."

Almost every inch of Reifonas' van is covered with paint: flowers border the back window, cumulus clouds surround the license plate and musical scales climb the wheel arches.

In the failing light, I ask Reifonas to pose with his artcar for a photograph.

"You mean with my back to the camera, like this?" he says, turning away with his back to me to gaze wistfully at the trees behind his van.

I want to say "No," but we've just met so I say "Sure" and take two photos of him looking intently into the middle distance.

A couple of minutes later, I ask Reifonas to face me again so that I can take a photograph of him standing in front of his van.

"You mean with my hair completely covering my face, like this?" he asks, taking off his cap, pulling his hair over his face and jamming his cap back on.

I want to say "No" again, but we're standing in a cemetery on a Thursday night and the sun is sinking below the tree line, and it will be dark soon, and no one knows I'm here with him. So I say "Sure."

A woman pulls up beside us in a car -- a car with a dull factory finish -- and asks if we know where she can find some silver maple trees. We're standing beside a multicolored, glimmering Dodge Caravan that sports a Mr. Potato Head hood ornament. Clearly we are not botanists.

We both point vaguely across the road because, simply, there are lots of trees there. She drives away.

"People are more likely to talk to you and be friendly," Reifonas continues. "Like, I don't think she would have stopped to talk to us if it had been a regular car."

He leans against his artcar and crosses his arms as the woman's car disappears around the corner.

"It makes people happy, I think."

Artcar owners can register their artcars on an online database (rocketvan.com/artcar/listall.php). Among the 93 entries currently listed, the Artcar Registry includes the Sunflower Car, Laundrycar and the Cosmic Ray Deflection Vehicle.

At the end of a long artificial canyon formed by two rows of sad-looking tractor-less trailers, in a part of town that he's asked not be disclosed, Steve Davis is waiting for me with his artcar.

"This is a 1970, you know, they call it Type II VW bus," Davis says, as a breeze momentarily flattens his unruly hair. "It has the big engine in it. It's, like, the simplest engine there is. I bought this van from Ric Hordinski, who was was in the band Over the Rhine. He's a local, like, producer guy. I've been a friend of the band. There's a whole group of us."

We're standing on a gravel driveway in front of a huge abandoned brick warehouse. Davis says he lives in the warehouse with his dog Demetri and jabs a thumb absent-mindedly over his shoulder at a row of windows somewhere near the top corner of the building.

He tells the van's story: Davis bought it from Hordinski; Hordinski was given the van by singer-songwriter David Wilcox; Wilcox got the van from who-knows-where and decided, for reasons unknown at one time or another, possibly 1993 or thereabouts, to paint it with some friends, whose names Davis doesn't know.

"I knew that if I bought it," Davis says, "I wouldn't repaint it, as it's not my creation. I appointed myself its custodian."

Davis' weather-beaten van looks every one of its 34 years. Nonetheless, he obligingly sinks down to one knee to pose for a photograph in front of it, obscuring for a moment its crooked front fender.

"I run a little landscaping company called Stratford Gardens," he says, still kneeling and smiling into the sun, "and I use this quite a bit with the landscaping. It's so utilitarian, so useful. A big box on wheels. Usually everybody gives me the peace sign. A few skeptics will shout, you know, 'Woodstock is over.'

"A lot of Cincinnati people, when I'm working in Hyde Park, don't like it. They'll tolerate it, but they don't like it parked in their neighborhood."

Since buying the van, Davis says he's only changed one thing.

"Before, it had red kind of splattered on the front," he says, pointing to the lopsided fender, "but it reminded me too much of roadkill."

The Artcar Museum -- or Garage Mahal -- was opened in February 1998 in Houston. Its collection of 17 artcars represents one of the largest collections found anywhere.

"What it is," says Luke Ebner, standing beside something that frankly requires identification, "is a mobile greenhouse."

Not so long ago, Ebner says, his mobile greenhouse -- which looks more like a disused boat lowered incautiously onto overburdened wheels -- was in fact a 1989 Plymouth Voyager. Roughly $4,000, a new engine and countless hours later, it's now a bright green '89 mobile greenhouse. It sits stoutly on an uncut patch of grass in Loveland behind the house of a patient and accommodating friend.

"That's John Deere green," Ebner says, giving the sun-baked hull a proprietorial pat.

Ebner is tall and skinny and speaks as if he's just woken from a long nap that wasn't quite long enough.

"I'm going to jump start it and get it running here," he says, climbing into the van and wiping a finger through the dust that's settled on its seat-less interior. "It stays pretty hot in here."

Inside the empty greenhouse, standing in the oppressive heat, Ebner recalls being part of the 2003 Northside July Fourth Parade, skillfully piloting his mobile greenhouse through the streets.

"I threw out peppers that were in here, and everyone was like, 'Yeah!' " he says. "I had tomatoes and peppers and basil. What else did we have? Cilantro, just stuff like that. But mainly it was, like, a conceptual piece. It was about how no one has the space to grow their own food.

"Someone could park this in their own driveway or even in the city and supply at least a couple of families with food. We came up with the name NOFA, which stands for Nomadic Organic Farming Association."

Back outside on the grass, we circle the greenhouse.

"Everything from this point on," Ebner says, pointing to the back of the cab, "it was cut off to the base, and then the rest of the frame is welded steel. It's like a geodesic-type design. I put a new engine in it last year. It's got about 60,000 miles on it. It's pretty good. It's not necessarily the easiest thing to drive around. I wouldn't use it as everyday transport."

Eventually, Ebner says, he'd like to engineer the van so that it runs on alternative fuels, which he plans to make from vegetables and methanol.

"Right now," he says, "it's just a gashog."

"The ways and whimsy of artcars are endless, and that's the way it has been since God gave us fuzzy dice, plastic Jesuses and oogah horns." -- Paul Dean, Los Angeles Times staff writer

"I have no trouble getting marijuana, that's for damn sure," says Michael C. Burns IV, standing beside his artcar.

I meet Burns near Burnet Woods in Clifton early one evening. He's playing with his dog when I arrive, throwing a stick into the long grass, which the dog obligingly retrieves and places gently back into his hand.

Covered as it is with impressionistic flowers and swirls of color, Burns' van looks like it belongs here parked in front of the ruffled lake and the screen of trees that borders the woods. Between August 2003 and August 2004, Burns says, he and his dog lived in his artcar.

"Through the winter," says the commercial artist, "which sucked. I've never been so cold. My dog's never been so cold. Freezed our asses off. If you can write 'asses,' that would be nice."

He throws the stick into the long grass again.

"It's my studio on wheels is what it is," he says. "It's got a new motor, new transmission, new everything. I've got all my stuff in the back."

He slides the side door open. "Kitchen's under there," he says pointing to a stool. "Toolbox," he says, pointing into the van's dark interior. "Garage," he says, pointing to another spot.

I ask Burns how old he is.

"Thirty," he says, nodding. "Thirty and single. Obviously there aren't too many ladies who want to take up residence in my van with me. Believe me, I've tried."

When he bought the van, Burns says, it was white. First he painted it green.

"I had it for a year," he says, "driving it around green."

Last summer, Burns -- whose murals can be seen around town and on his Web site (vanwagon.com) -- finally traded living in his van for a condominium in Landen instead.

"I lived out of that thing for one year," he said a couple of weeks ago. "I would actually live on site of my mural paintings, with all the amenities that the 1970 artcar provided, which wasn't much but a bed and some storage. You know, you asked me why people don't do this to their cars and another answer just popped into my head. They're afraid that the police will pull them over. I haven't been bothered by the police here at all."

He pauses for a moment.

"I have in small towns, though," he says. "When I drive through a small, shitty town, I get pulled over every time."

"There aren't many developments in the folk art world, (but) artcars are one. This is a folk art that's a direct outgrowth of Americans' obsession with their cars." -- Charlie Cerny, Director of Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art

David Michaels' artcar is so subtle that I pass it three times in search of a parking space outside his Covington home and never even notice it. I assume Michaels has it stowed away somewhere in a garage, carefully covering it with a sheet to protect it from the weather.

But as I walk up the front path to his house, I realize his artcar has been parked in the driveway all this time.

"It's a '95 Ford Windstar," Michaels says, standing on the sidewalk in a clean white jumpsuit.

A couple of minutes earlier, he'd emerged from the art studio at the rear of his house, with the smell of fresh paint still clinging to his jumpsuit. Now he proudly approaches his artcar.

When he bought it at an auction a couple of years ago, he says, it was red.

"I didn't like the color red," he says matter-of-factly, "so I sanded it down and painted it with aluminum roof paint."

And he didn't stop there. After daubing the minivan with thick silver paint, Michaels studded its bodywork with hundreds of rivets -- he likes airplanes, he says -- in such a pragmatic way that it seems like an obvious thing to have done. Then he glued a two-inch wide strip of circuit boards harvested from old electrical equipment along each side, interrupted only by the front fender and rear license plate. Finally, a couple of years ago, he installed a red emergency light on the roof.

"People are really afraid to mess with their cars," says the artist and social worker. "I think people are maybe intimidated, or they feel like they've lowered the value of their car. I've always sort of personalized my cars. People are always looking, asking me questions. I make stuff up, say it's solar-powered or something."

The circuit boards, bristling with diodes and solder, twinkle in the sun late afternoon sun.

"Black rustoleum," Michaels says cryptically, pointing to the matt-black rear fender. "Oil-based paint, you know. It holds up to the weather. And the rims came from Wal-Mart. They were cheap but they were too silver, so I painted them."

Michaels says he still has more work planned for his artcar.

"I was going to put these things on the back," he says, "that looked like bottoms of rockets, you know, the afterburners? But you've got to know where to stop."

Currently celebrating its 11th year, the Minnesota Artcar Parade was held on Feb. 13. Celebrants met for brunch at 10:30 a.m. before setting off across Lake Minnetonka in their artcars to visit ice fishermen.

Rod Boggild crouches in the street and squints through an imaginary camera, inexpertly checking the angles, the light levels and the position of a nearby fire hydrant that he'd rather not appear in the shot.

Shaking his head, he opens the front driver's side door of his artcar and leans against it, pushing the car five feet farther along the road. He returns to his spot, crouches comically, looks again through a square formed by his thick stubby fingers and shakes his head. The fire hydrant still will be visible, he says.

He gets back into the car and this time drives it another 10 feet along the curb, lost momentarily in a noxious grey cloud. He gets out again, crouches, squints and nods.

In short, Boggild is exhausting. As he runs from the road to the car to the curb to the road to the car and back again, he's constantly yelling out instructions. I am to clearly count, "One, two, three," leaving a beat between each before taking photographs, he says, so that he knows precisely when to pull a spontaneous smile.

"Count it off," he shouts, after checking his flies and rearranging his woolly hat over two stubby grey pigtails.

One ... two ... three!

"Cheese!" Boggild shouts, smiling not very spontaneously at all.

"It's a '78 Fairmont," he says a couple of minutes later, after catching his breath, "a Ford Fairmont."

To be more precise, it's a 1978 Ford Fairmont with a mottled black hood, a hand-painted American flag stretching down each side panel, an unusual-looking homemade billboard attached sail-like to the roof and, above the radiator grille, the words "Seek Jesus, Find Hope."

To be less precise, it is, as Boggild calls it, "a totally different approach to gospel outreach."

He waits patiently for a response.

"I'm the Noah of Northside," he says, running out of patience. He throws his arms skyward. "He's building an ocean liner and he's never seen it rain!"

"This is a working car," he says. "This is not just some frivolous artcar."

For several years, Boggild has been an active and enthusiastic member of the Garrard Street Church of Christ.

"I'm the inventor," he says. "I'm the resident crackpot. But they used to call Wilbur Wright a crackpot, and they used to call Henry Ford a crackpot before he invented the Model T. So I don't mind being ahead of my time."

Boggild describes how he painted the car, which, in less guarded moments, he calls the love of his heart: After using sandpaper to roughen its surface, he painted it white and carefully laid out his color scheme with a pencil before applying colored paints, often applying two different colors, one atop the other -- Pepto-Bismol pink beneath a vermillion wash for the red stripes on each side panel, he says.

At one time, he says, the hood was covered with stars, but it was too distracting to drive so he painted it black instead.

The car is a valuable tool for recruiting new members to the church, he says, catching the attention of lost souls as it caught mine, idling noisily and colorfully in the parking lot of a grocery store in Saint Bernard.

"And the chicks love this thing," he adds, "its uniqueness, its schtick."

He pauses for a second.

"You know what schtick is?" he shouts. "It's a Yiddish word. S-c-h-t-i-c-k." ©

 
 
 
 

 

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