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`Art car' buffs drive own road

Emily Duffy's Honda Odyssey is festooned with 250 bras glued into the shape of a giant bra atop the minivan's bright pink hood.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

NEW YORK CITY—Emily Duffy’s Honda Odyssey is festooned with 250 bras glued into the shape of a giant bra atop the minivan’s bright pink hood.

Hundreds of women’s hair curlers and metal drain pipes deck the roof.

On each door a painted figure of a woman depicts one of the “Four Saints of Beauty.”

Scrawled across the doors on one side is the message, “Who profits from your self-loathing?” and on the other, “Vanity thy name is marketing.”

The licence plate reads, “Vain Van.”

Duffy, 49, has been grabbing people’s attention in more ways than one in her “bra” van since 1999.

“It makes a horrible sound when I am driving down the highway and the wind blows through the pipes,” she said.

“It’s like driving an organ.”

Duffy, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is not the only one using a vehicle to express herself.

The “Grass Man” of Columbus, Ohio, wears a green grass suit and drives a car planted from top to bottom and side to side with living, growing grass.

Then there is the “Button King” of Bishopville, S.C., who dresses in a button suit, plays a button-covered guitar and drives a 1968 Pontiac hearse covered in 600,000 buttons.

And the “Spoon Man” of Newberry, S.C., has riveted his blue Chevy truck with 1,480 spoons and sings the “Spoon Man” rap.

So goes the world of art cars, a pastime in which aficionados personalize their vehicles in wacky ways as symbols of personal freedom or fantasies made into reality.

There are more than 538 car artists in the United States, and they showcase their cars through their everyday travels as well as at car shows, said Harrod Blank, founder of Art Car World, an association of car artists.

Their numbers keep growing.

“What appears like a fringe aspect of art is actually a large melting pot for conceptual artists, serious painters, sculptors and wacky craft folk who happily coexist in the art car world,” Blank said.

Car artists from around the country flock to annual shows like the West Coast’s Art Car Fest, the Houston Art Car Parade and the Seattle Art Car Blowout.

And ordinary drivers are not the only ones to embrace the idea. BMW is showcasing 15 of its own art cars, painted over the years by artists like Andy Warhol and Frank Stella.

A world exhibition of the cars has travelled to the Louvre in Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

If it’s true that you are what you drive, then what about a car that looks like a giant egg-laying rabbit or a bike camouflaged as a cow?

Blank, 43, who has written books and made films about art cars, describes them as autobiographical. “Instead of hiding, all these people are expressing themselves through their cars,” he said.

Two plastic roosters hang upside down from the front bumper of Blank’s first art car, a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle he bought for $600. A hollowed-out TV sits atop the car with a real skull inside, a statement about what happens to people who watch too much TV, in his view.

A plastic globe with a blinking light inside serves as a hood ornament. The car is appropriately labelled after people’s reaction to it: “O My Gawd.”

“The rooster is my personal totem,” said Blank, who grew up near Santa Cruz, Calif., and raised chickens as a boy.

“Art cars used to be a more male-dominated field 10 years back, but now the largest growing proportion of art cars is among young women.”

Cat Caldwell, 25, started using her 1999 Subaru Forester as a canvas in Boulder, Colo., to overcome her depression after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I didn’t want people to see the world in black and white anymore. Ultimately, this was like therapy for me.”

She painted her car with black-and-white stripes over a backdrop of high-rise buildings and called it “Zebaru.”

While some car artists are inspired by issues of the day, others transform their cars for less heady reasons, like making up with their girlfriends.

David Crow, an architect in Seattle, used the parts of a Honda motorcycle to create a red stiletto shoe on wheels to appease his girlfriend.

She was angry after he called her Imelda Marcos for buying three pairs of shoes.

“I came to realize that women’s shoes are as important to them as hot bikes to men,” he said.

Crow invested four years into making the shoe bike.

In the end, the effort failed to pay off. His girlfriend left him, Crow said, because he was spending more time on the shoe than on her.

But the red stiletto lived on, appearing in car shows around the world.

One downside of the art car universe is that not everyone approves of the vehicles.

“My boss told me not to drive it to work,” Caldwell said, “as it was just not acceptable in this other society I was trying to make a living in.”

She left her teaching job and took up selling cars instead.

Driving an art car is exhausting, she admitted, due to the flood of questions from onlookers. Then there is the constant upkeep the cars require.

“The whole process can get out of control,” Caldwell warned.

Blank recognizes that there are no career opportunities in art cars. “It is adventurous and entertaining, but there is no concept of money here,” he said.

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