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The Car Is the Canvas at Houston's Art Car Museum

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author photo by Sam Keller October 2017

I recently found myself in Houston, Texas -- a city that calls itself the "Art Car Capital of the World." Every April, for the past 30 years, the city of Houston has hosted their largest free public event, the Art Car Parade. The parade, which often draws 250+ rolling works of art, spans Houston's downtown, showcasing the bizarre creativity and DIY roots of this automotive subculture. The parade is organized by the Orange Center for Visionary Art, a nonprofit arts organization that sponsors a number of scholarship and art education programs for urban public schools and manages other folk-art destinations in Houston, such as The Orange Center, The Beer Can House and the Art Car Museum -- a rolling showcase and testament to the artist inside of everyone that uses the car as the canvas and the springboard to creativity.

An art car is a visionary or folk art approach to designing or transforming a car into a mold-defying automotive expression. In some cars, a traditional folk art approach is used, such as a mosaic, bead-covered or hand-painted car. Sometimes artists take a more conceptual approach, such as transforming a go-kart into a sardine can, exemplified by this year's "contraption" winner, titled "Something's Fishy" (see below). Participation in the Art Car Parade is open to anyone. Individuals, organizations, school groups and professional artists can attend and contribute. A well-known local metalworking artist, Mark "Scrapdaddy" Bradford, has contributed many vehicles -- including one called "Spoonozoid," a motorcycle-based lizard-like car with a scaly body constructed entirely from spoons (see below).

The parade is not just limited to Art Cars. Houston is home to other popular automotive subcultures, who also participate in the parade. Lowriders and slab cars also show up in numbers to the parade, and are judged and awarded. I was already familiar with lowrider culture, but I had never before heard of a "slab car." I have since learned that slab is an acronym for "slow, loud and banging", and it's a parallel subculture to lowriding. Where lowriders pride themselves in hydraulic kits, slabs showcase loud sound systems, candy paint jobs, custom grills and an odd, forgotten feature -- the vertical fifth wheel protruding from the back, also hydraulically actuated. In addition to the Art Car Parade, slabs have their own parade, which started in 2013.

The passionate attachment of Houstonians to "Art Cars" is on display at the Art Car Museum, which showcases the spirit and the tradition of the parade during the other 364 days of the year. At the time of my visit, the museum housed a few of the winners from this year's parade, in addition to an exhibition of artwork from local students. Over $21,000 was awarded in cash prizes to winners in 14 categories, such as best painted car, best contraption and best performance -- based on overall theme, craftsmanship, design, originality and transformation. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Art Car Parade -- and with that, the introduction of the Hall of Fame Award, which is given to a local favorite seen year after year.

Art cars are a unique and nontraditional form of automotive subculture, where anyone with a vision can transform any car into a personal parade float and unique individual expression. I was initially perturbed by a perfectly good automobile completely covered in seashells or matchbox cars, or a paint job executed with a brush and nonautomotive paint -- however, after visiting the Art Car Museum, I understand how Houston's car-centric culture paired with its visionary art history birthed this unique tradition. If I lived in Houston with an extra garage bay, you might even see my art car in the parade.

   2017 Winner "Homage to Artist Pedro Linares Lopez" by Mary Anne & Charles Fried

2017 Winner "Homage to Artist Pedro Linares Lopez" by Mary Anne & Charles Fried

Art Car Museum

Spoonozoid by Mark Bradford

2003 Judges Choice "Spoonozoid" by Mark 'Scrapdaddy' Bradford

"Something's Fishy" by Marlene Lacoviello & Jana Jordan

2017 Contraption Winner, "Something's Fishy" by Marlene Lacoviello & Jana Jordan

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The Car Is the Canvas at Houston's Art Car Museum - Autotrader