It's art, OK, but is there a parking spot for it at the museum?


December 03, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Where do I begin to describe Joe Mehl's work of art? Let's begin where Mehl began -- with a 1975 Chevy Nova. It was beige. It was boring. It might have been one of the most boring automobiles ever conceived, assembled and driven off the showroom floor. "But it was a good car," Joe says, standing on his front porch on Guilford Avenue. "I've had it for 18 years. I can't tell you how many miles are on it."

Joe, now retired, was in the upholstery business. "Upholstery and slipcovers," he says. Which is like saying Michelangelo was a mason. Joe's an artist, and over the years he has exerted his creative skills beyond sofas and armchairs. He's developed a line of what he calls "rich and famous" furniture, gold-and-velvet thrones that look like something Liberace might have ordered.

But what occasions my visit to Joe's house in Charles Village is the work of art parked in the street.

As I said, it started out as a Nova.

Over the last three years it has become a work of folk art -- a black, limousine-like, Lincoln Continental-like, Batmobile-like, armored car-like thing suited for a Mad Max movie. It's stunning. It has made Joe the talk of the Village. The more miles he puts on the thing -- it is still an untitled piece -- the more he drives it through the city and suburbs, the more famous it will become. A real eye-catcher. "The cops, when they saw it, took off their hats and scratched their heads," Joe says.

The old Nova has been extended front and rear, framed in wood, covered with Naugahyde and coated with some special sealant that keeps the thing waterproof. "Everyone wants to know how I do it," Joe says. "I can't tell you that."

What drives Joe Mehl to do this? We look at automobiles parked up and down Guilford Avenue. They're all pretty boring. "They all look about the same," Joe says. "They all look like they were pressed out of a mold."

So Joe wanted something really different, and that's what he has. "But it's not finished yet," he says of his customized car. "I haven't done the interior yet." He plans to incorporate some of his "rich and famous" throne art in the driver and passenger seats. Be watching for it. Believe me, you'll know it when you see it.

One who knew

Did anyone in Baltimore really figure Jacksonville would get a National Football League team? Just for the record, sportscaster Chuck Thompson called it almost two months ago. Speaking before the Reisterstown Lions Club on Oct. 6, Chuck predicted the NFL owners would award franchises to Charlotte and Jacksonville. . . . Here's how one Jacksonville sportswriter summed up what Sundays will be like in that Florida city: "Tailgating will bring this city to life. Barbecue. Sausages. Roasted pigs and more. The nation will see it all." . . . And here's how one Baltimorean, Bob Catzen, summed up his feelings the morning after Jacksonville was awarded the franchise. Waiting to board a plane for, ironically, Charlotte, he said: "If you let a monkey climb high enough, more of its rear end shows. That's how I feel about the NFL now."

'Boys from Highlandtown'

Did you know Highlandtown had a song? Eric Rogers says it's not an official Highlandtown song, but a ditty titled "The Boys From Highlandtown," whose lyrics he "absorbed in the mid-'60s at various taverns, bull roasts, crab feasts and social gatherings." Rogers adds, "It was never my intention to purposely learn the words. It just happened by being in the presence of others who enjoyed a glass of cheer and singing." Here goes:

Oh, we're the boys from Highlandtown

You hear so much about

The neighbors take their daughters in

Whenever we're around

My name is Hayseed

My hair is seaweed

My ears are made of leather

And they flap in windy weather

Oh gosh, Oh Hemrot

I'm tough as pineknot

For we're the boys from Highlandtown."

This makes two Baltimore neighborhood songs that we're aware of, "Pigtown Will Shine Tonight" being the other.

Of birds and frogs

Among the many respondents to our call for examples of tackiana -- tacky ornaments, art objects, utensils, amusements, just about anything cheap and/or weird -- are Sherri Trabert and Joey Amalfitano.

Trabert: "We have two 4-inch dead and dried bullfrogs sitting at a little table and having drinks. It's some sort of really bizarre advertisement for Carta Blanca beer."

Amalfitano: "I was in this guy's backyard and he's got a birdbath -- three giant sea horses holding up the basin, and the whole thing painted baby blue. In the middle of the birdbath is this 2-foot-tall rooster with all kinds of gaudy colors. And in East Baltimore I saw a cinder block wall, and cemented into the top of the wall were ceramic squirrels, birds and the head of some saint."

If you've got a piece of tackiana -- you know it when you see it -- drop a line with a description, or send a photo. Maybe we'll have a Tackiana Festival in the spring.

This Just In appears each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Give me a call on 332-6166 or drop me a line at The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Let's hear from you.

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