The art cars roll into town this weekend

Categories: Q&A

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It is hard to ignore Harrod Blank when he rolls through town. A Berkeley, CA resident , art car aficionado, and filmmaker, Blank is also the artist behind three cars: Oh My God!, Pico de Gallo, and the Camera Van. Blank’s Camera Van has been in storage in Boston for five years. The man and his van will be reunited at this year’s Art Car Parade.

City Pages: What was your first art car?

Harrod Blank: My first art car was Oh My God! and that was made in 1981. I’m still working on it to this day, so it’s developed over many years. It’s a 1965 VW bug. It has a beach ball base coat, a TV set on top, a world globe, spinning flowers, and a rooster on my driver’s door which represents me.

CP: An affinity for chickens?

HB: I had a hundred chickens when I was sixteen and they all had names and I spent all day in a chicken coop with them—almost as if I was one of the chickens. I grew up a little bit odd. I didn't have a TV set so I had no concept of popular culture. When I had to commute, other kids made fun of me 'cause I didn't know who the Brady Bunch was. I was popular 'cause I was odd but I was also on the outside looking at them.

CP: When did you first become aware of art cars?

HB: I started hearing about these other art cars by world of mouth and realized I wasn't alone. I became curious about what motivated those other people. I found out it's a whole art medium. The car is the canvas. That's it. It's a mobile medium so you have this power built into it, which people, they understand it once they start doing it.

CP: Why art cars? What attracted you to them?

HB: I think that I'm attracted to characters and people that are eccentric and people that have a different perspective on the world. If you're gonna put grass all over your car and drive around, you're different. You're definitely different than other people. I find that fascinating. In fact, I find it fascinating to learn what's behind the car, what that person's like.

CP: What was the inspiration for your Camera Car?

HB: Basically, after driving Oh My God all those years I was getting a little bit older and my parents were kind of wondering when I was going to grow up. I always wanted to show people what it was that I saw—how people look at the car. I had this dream where I covered the car with cameras and drove around and took pictures of people and the public didn't know that the cameras worked and I captured these reaction shots.

CP: The cameras do actually work?

HB: They work! Instead of everyone just looking at me, I'm looking back at them and I'm taking their picture. So it flips the whole relationship. I kind of say the Camera Van is not just the Camera Van. These types of expressions are what art car drivers see—awe, smiles, joy, laughter.

CP: Well now that I know that they work, when I see it, I'm just gonna be stone faced.

HB: Well, they don't all work. Once I take a picture and it flashes, they do get stone struck. They're like, "Oh no, this guy, this thing is taking my picture." They think they all work. Well they don't all work, but enough of them work that I'm going to get your picture.

CP: Why have art cars become such a popular art form?

HB: Well, I think that it's because of the mobility of the medium is really a big thing. It's a great way to express yourself and your identity whatever it is. Some people collect things and they put their entire collection on their car. Like this one guy, an older man in San Francisco, covered his car with his collection of brass music, those gaudy things you'd get in the 70s and 80s that wind up and they play that gaudy music. He wanted something to do with his collection and he wanted people to enjoy it, so he put them on his car and he got a lot of joy out of it.

CP: Are art cars in danger of becoming too mainstream?

HB: I think it's so far away from being in the mainstream. Wouldn't it be interesting if it were flipped and it was like a normal car would be the rare thing to see. Then they'd stand out. I think right now you can pick any city in the country and the most you're gonna get is like forty or fifty art cars in that whole city. That's not that many. You don't see an art car on a daily basis unless it's a small little town that has an art car then you'll see that person around. They're pretty rare. They really are.

CP: What effect, if any, do rising gas prices and global warming have on the idea of cars as art?

HB: There's a lot of change going on. That's why my movie is called Automorphisis because everything is changing. I think that what's happening is cars are going to change and the alternative fuels, it's going to happen. Art cars as well are going to have to become more fuel efficient. The newest canvas right now for a lot of these art car people, if they have the money, is the Prius or a hybrid. I'm seeing them. There's at least three right now that I know of. But I don't know if they can carry much weight. It might limit what you can do with a car.

CP: Can you give an example of how people in the art car world have changed?

HB: Well, getting a little more serious. It started out as just really a fun magical experience. One woman who's in my film just called me from Istanbul. She did this car called Pestilencia that was covered with decapitated body parts and heads and "Stop Greed”—she's kind of like a punk rock-ish type girl. She did this art car in response to how she feels about the world. It was very emotionally motivated about how she felt about greed. She never had that with her normal car. She never had that in her life previously. After she has this art car experience, she got her self esteem back—she eventually crushed the car at an art car festival in San Francisco. She crushed the car, let go of it and then she immediately went into learning how to sail. She bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul and she's now teaching English to political candidates there. I mean—this is unbelievable! The thing is that the car itself transported her not just through space and time, but though development. It really did help change her. Now she doesn't need an art car, but she's a happier, healthier person because of it.

CP: What's your impression of the Twin Cities art car scene?

HB: I think it's great. I think Minneapolis has a great hub. It's definitely one of the hubs that when you talk about art cars in the US, Minneapolis comes up as one of the top five so it's a great thing. Jan Elftman is the spirit behind it. She's the one that helped organize it from the beginning and she's just great. Her art car and her attitude toward art is just really healthy and contagious. Her enthusiasm for the medium and for people and for art, you know, that's her life. She teaches art and she's really behind it. When somebody like that gets behind something then the whole thing reflects her energy. So it's all positive. It just feels good, it is good and she's a great thing for Minneapolis. I mean, she's really a great person. She's the backbone of that energy there. I love coming to Minneapolis.

CP: Are art cars a uniquely American phenomenon?

HB: Definitely. Here art cars are really about individuality and having the freedom to create and do all these things to your car. Whereas in other countries, like England, for example, it's illegal. It's a law that you cannot put anything on your car. Nothing. I mean, the law is that you can't even have a hood ornament on a Jaguar, for example. You can paint your car and I've seen painted vehicles in England and other countries. But that is kind of limiting. I got away with it because I was American and you're exempt from their rules if you have an American license plate, which was pretty neat because I got to drive the Camera Van all over England.

The Camera Van, 80 other mobile creations, and a sneak peak of Blank's new movie Automorphosis can be seen Friday at the Midtown Global Market's ArtCar sneak peak, as well as at the parade itself Saturday.

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