Rolling gem of a tribute Memorial: The American Visionary Art Museum's exhibit on love includes a bejeweled car.

May 16, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF News researcher Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

It was quite an offer: $300,000 for a 1963 Chevrolet Corvair. But the used-car dealer refused. What he wanted, nobody could pay.

He lived alone in an apartment in Amarillo, Texas, and about once a year he hauled his sleek automobile out of an alarm-secured truck and, in a fury, decorated it with jewels, mementos of what he wanted: his wife, Jean. She was killed when her car was crushed under an 18-wheeler on an icy day -- Feb. 17, 1980.

"The car is in her memory," he said. "Every item on it has a meaning."

Now, it is high art.

Named "Jewel Box," the car that Jay E. Battenfield Jr. adorned with more than $1 million in jewelry -- including a yellow diamond butterfly believed to have been donated by the queen of England -- is part of the American Visionary Art Museum's exhibition in Baltimore, "Love: Error and Eros," which opens today and runs through May 30 next year.

"Monet, he wasn't," said his daughter, Becky Battenfield Schneider. "He knew how to glue stuff on cars."

Battenfield's jewel-encrusted tribute is one of 205 works in the museum exhibit, which examines love as one of the most powerful human emotions. Featured are 71 self-taught artists, divided into galleries of "true love," "love scorned," "love divine," "love profane" and "love lost."

Among the works of art is a bobbing-head, larger-than-life statue of the late Divine, the 300-pound actor who dressed in drag. Emotion bursts from a quilt depicting divorce with a broken heart. A woman is portrayed with arms outstretched, beseeching God, the embodiment of spiritual love. There are also pictures of, well, physical acts of love.

In Battenfield's case, there was an act of mourning that created a car never assembled before.

Faltering as he summoned painful memories, he once said, "It was a trauma thing that caused the car to be built. The car has brought me some contentment and helped me dispel the anger that I've built inside me at the loss of my wife."

Jean had long predicted that she would die in her mid-40s in a car accident. Then it happened. A snowplow was leaving behind slush on Interstate 40 in Amarillo when her Chrysler LeBaron spun out of control and slid under a tractor-trailer barreling down the highway. Not for another mile did the driver realize that his truck had been dragging her car. She had died on impact.

"She said she'd never be ill and she'd never be old," Battenfield said, "and that's the way it turned out."

He grew old alone, balding and sagging, an incongruous sight next to his wife, frozen in pictures as a radiant young woman with an auburn bob, dark eyes and a movie-star mole on her left cheek. An orphan from England, she blossomed into a starlet in British films, a singer and an artist. She spoke seven languages and put herself through school to become a registered nurse.

When they met in the mid-1960s, Battenfield was a bus driver. For both, it was their third -- and last -- marriage. He became a successful auto dealer in Amarillo and Colorado Springs, Colo. She was independent; he was driven by work.

"He admired her as much as he loved her," said Rebecca A. Hoffberger, the museum's founder and director.

They were best friends until her death.

What followed was obsessive, reckless and liberating. If a car could be a love note, it would look something like what Battenfield created: relentlessly bejeweled like a protective shield or a hearse for a love lost.

The body of the car is covered in black diamonds, pearls, amethysts, rubies, jade, bullet shells, silver stars, dominoes, old coins, his Purple Heart medal from World War II, his grandfather's gold pocket watch, a gold rooster pendant, a "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" star, a lock, a siren, trophies, dolphins, butterflies, the American flag and track lighting. Red beads across the front bumper spell "BATS JEWELL BOX." A stuffed koala clutches the antenna. The dashboard is peopled by little ponytailed dolls and a purple "VIP" ribbon.

Word spread. He was contacted by CNN, the BBC and news media from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. People the world over, mourning their own losses, began to donate jewelry for his creation.

"It was kind of cool," said Becky, a daughter from his second ZTC marriage. "He's always been a little out there. People call it eccentric. But it would keep him from going crazy."

It also sustained memories.

"You never get over the loss of a loved one, a good friend," Battenfield said in an interview in the early 1990s.

"They're with you forever in spirit. They may not be here in body. But it's like the song 'Always On My Mind.' She will always be on my mind until I die."

Battenfield choked to death on a sandwich on Jan. 13, 1997, his daughter said.

He was 72.

But the car, titled in his niece's name, still runs.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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