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When Cars Are Art

Car Art
Herrod Blank and Alexis Spottswood

But Is It Car?: Herrod Blank's art car "OHMYGOD" is known for blasting its rooster horn across the Black Rock Desert.

Why not share and enlighten as you drive?

By Richard von Busack

The car slammed into the Georgia stock-car racer Hyler Bracey at 150 miles an hour. The gas tank exploded into flames, and the trapped driver received third-degree burns over half of his body. Bracey tells the camera of Bay Area documentary-maker Herrod Blank in Driving a Dream, "It's a good thing I was comatose, so I didn't inhale any of the flames."

The surgeons did a good job on Bracey's face. He's badly scarred, but you couldn't tell from 10 feet away, like you can with the really unlucky ones. During the recovery in the hospital, Bracey's doctor told him he was afraid that the scars would make the racer a recluse.

The doctor's warning got to him. So when Bracey got out of the hospital, he made himself an art truck. He found old steamboat whistles, train klaxons, compressed air horns. Atop the bristle of noisemakers he installed the pièce de résistance: a Kahlenberg ship's horn with a yard-wide mouth audible12 miles away. He says, "I especially like driving up behind someone with a 'Honk if you love Willie Nelson' bumper sticker."

The story has a sad ending, according to Blank. "He was towing that truck to an art-car festival, and the tow bar broke and the truck rolled. That man is accident prone, I think." Blank's latest documentary on the subject of art cars, Driving the Dream, follows up his other documentary on the subject, the 1992 Wild Wheels . Driving the Dream will be aired on TBS' National Geographic Explorer on Oct. 5. In it, Blank tells his own story and profiles a few of the hundreds nationwide who have elected to turn their nondescript cars into personal statements--the ones who have transformed the surfaces of their automobile into forms as artificial as a hamburger or as natural as a home-grown lawn.

The end of summer almost seems to be the beginning of art-car season. September is the month for the Nevada desert festival Burning Man, a rallying spot for art cars; last month there was an art-car building session at the studio of Oakland artist Suki O'Kane. A '56 Buick Special was worked on by a group of attendees in preparation for creating a multimedia piece O'Kane calls "The Charette." In late August the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley featured a rough-cut of Blank's new film, an exhibition of local cars.

San Francisco will have an early preview of Blank's documentary at the first annual ArtCar WestFest, Sept. 25-27. The Somar Gallery event is a spinoff of the Houston Art Car parade held every April. The two-day fest sponsored by 20 Tank Brewery includes such ungallerylike occurrences as a barbecue, a fashion show and an audience participation like the one at O'Kane's studio.

Herrod Blank's progress toward becoming the leading chronicler of the art car began when he was 16, he tells me. We stood next to a hedge of flowering dry-climate plants in the driveway of his dad's house in the Berkeley foothills. Parked in front of the house was Blank's well-known ride "OHMYGOD": a multicolored mid-sixties VW Beetle crowned with a nest of objects making the car 10 feet high. "OHMYGOD" is equipped with electric spinning plastic lawn daisies, a mailbox and a beach-ball-sized globe fastened on the hood. Blank is lean and tall, a devoted basketball player in college. For a man who drives one of the most flamboyant cars in California, he doesn't have a joker's personality.

"I grew up in a forest," Blank says. "I lived in a commune in Bonny Doon, near Santa Cruz. I felt really alienated from the rest of the kids commuting to high school. So I made up this car thinking that I could show that I was different." (In Driving the Dream, Blank says: "It's like I was taking my spirit out of me and putting it all over this car.") Blank drove his prodigious VW to UC Santa Cruz. "College is where I realized the power of the art car. And it's there I realized that if I was calling attention to myself, I'd better have something to say."

In college, Blank had intended to be a creative writing major, but the department--The Writing Caucus, it was called--rejected him. Blank considered filmmaking as an alternative, but hesitated. His father, Les Blank, is a famed independent documentary-maker. "I didn't want to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to challenge myself, and I thought it would be too easy to be a filmmaker if you had a father who was a filmmaker. What I didn't know is that filmmaking isn't easy even then."

Blank made a student film, In the Land of the Owl Turds, which attracted some attention and toured to Berlin's Film Festival. "They ate it up," Blank says. "So I thought I was on my way to stardom."

For his next film, which had the million-dollar title Broke Dick Dog (Herrod's high school nickname), Blank took a job as a house painter in Santa Cruz, living in a doghouse during a rainy winter to save money. "It was about the size of a little girl's playhouse," Blank says. His head didn't stick out the door, but he got pneumonia anyway. The budding filmmaker spent all the money he'd saved on doctor bills. "I had an allergic reaction to the penicillin and almost died twice."

Back where he started a year later, Blank had the idea of trying to make a documentary on art cars. He pulled off the unlikely feat of convincing investors to put up funds on the grounds of slides Blank had made. The resulting documentary, Wild Wheels, hasn't made Blank rich, but it has given him a career making movies, a book and a calendar profiling art cars. His newest car is a van covered with hundreds of cameras salvaged from Santa Cruz's fine thrift shop the Bargain Barn. Some of the cameras are live and take snapshots; compared to the less narrative symbolic art on "OHMYGOD," the Camera Van is a clear statement of an artist's newfound direction--from semiautobiographical filmmaker to documentary-maker.

The Camera Van was currently parked at the studio of Blank's friend Philo Northrup, so we had a look at the better known "OHMYGOD." It's so old that it has to be towed when Blank takes it on the road to cross-country art-car festivals. On the passenger-side door is painted a strutting rooster; Blank tended chickens as a child and loved the birds. "They're loud, colorful and full of showmanship," he says. So he equipped his car with a custom-made horn that cock-a-doodle-doos loud enough to wake the dead.

When he was younger, Blank went to Mexico City as an exchange student, where he witnessed the effects of overpopulation. The back end of "OHMYGOD" is covered with inch-long toy rubber babies, above the collage of metal spoons, as a way of symbolizing the problem of feeding the billions; his right rear bumper, with a mosaic spelling out "Safe Sex," urges the passerby to consider the problem of too many pregnancies.

This is the sadder side of art cars: The people who have the aesthetics to build them are often offended by the basic aesthetics of cars in general (convenience, but pollution, destruction to communities and cheapening of the quality of life). So is decorating his car an apologetic tribute to what the convenience of driving has done to the world? "Yeah, in a way," Blank hesitates. "Cars are really disgusting, intensely ugly and mass-produced, and they have Godlike power over people who feel that they can define themselves through owning one. But that's what my career has been--urging people to define themselves by creating their own image in a car instead of buying an image. If you have to drive, why not share and enlighten with the car?"

Since Blank started, he's seen the act of driving an art car change from a provocation to a mutual celebration. In the beginning, "OHMYGOD" was vandalized and regularly pulled over by the police. "The Camera Van doesn't get pulled over so much; you know how nervous the police are around cameras," Blank says. "There's been a change in the last four to five years. Whereas once people went, 'What the hell is that junk?' now they go, 'That is a cool art car.' On the highway coming over, this motorcyclist, all helmeted up like Darth Vadar, was giving me the 'thumbs up.' He pulled up alongside me in the middle of the Bay Bridge wanting to shake hands, shouting, 'Cool, brother, cool!' "

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From the September 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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