Doing Art Wheels

Artscape becomes the vehicle for a joyful, visionary kind of expression.

July 17, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Nancy Josephson drives a minivan. You want to make something of it?

Too late, she already is.

So far, there is just a large plastic cow on the hood, resting in a bed of artificial grass and flowers, and a tutu-wearing egg with webbed feet on the roof. But soon there will be fish swimming on the bottom of the vehicle, animals grazing on its sides and a bevy of plastic birds flapping about on the roof, but not too high, because 74 inches is the maximum clearance for the parking garage at Philadelphia International Airport.

For Josephson, The Beauty Box -- like her seven earlier art cars -- represents more than art, more than a defiant statement against automakers who sell "image" and the gullible souls who buy it. It's also how she gets around.

Whether going to Target, taking the dog to the vet or picking up her daughter at school, Josephson drives her piece of art, saving a little time in parking lots -- hers is generally the only car with a cow on the hood -- but losing much more answering questions from the curious.

That, she says, is part of the joy of being a car artist.

Some people are content to let their automobiles define them; others, like Josephson, prefer it the other way around -- way, way the other way around. About two dozen of them will be showing their cars today at Artscape, Baltimore's biggest art festival.

While The Beauty Box won't be in the American Visionary Art Museum's art car exhibit (maybe next year), another Josephson creation will -- a school bus covered in a mosaic of mirrors and colored glass.

Josephson, known for her car art, jewelry and Haitian-inspired beadwork, created the bus, which she dubbed "Gallery a Go-Go," for use as a mobile art gallery. She donated it to AVAM two years ago when she and her husband, guitarist David Bromberg, relocated from Chicago to Wilmington, Del.

As with her other work, it reveals her basic art car philosophy: "If one sequin is great, a million is way better." Armed with silicone and a caulking gun, she started attaching "stuff" -- shards of mirror, pieces of colored glass, springs, chains, buttons, and lots of plastic animals. There are horses on the hubcaps, a toad on the fender, ducks wearing jewelry on the roof and more than a few plastic ostriches, bugs, squirrels, rabbits and birds.

"How many pieces in all? Thousands and thousands. It's like, how many angels are dancing on the head of the pin? You just don't know. You just keep doing it till you're done. Then you put a few more on."

Other entries this year include some returning cars, such as Sarah Ovenall's Undersea Mah Jongg, a 1991 Mazda depicting a match played by a goldfish, a lobster and two koi; and some new ones, such as PantsonFire Mobile, a 1977 Crown Victoria pulling a statue of President Bush with flames shooting out of his trousers.

The bus will serve as AVAM headquarters during Artscape; then it will become part of the permanent exhibit in Visionary Village, a new section of the museum opening in November.

The inside of the bus will be turned into a minitheater, showing documentaries and videos relating to car artists.

Josephson is also playing a major role in a year-long exhibit opening at AVAM in October -- Holy H2O: Fluid Universe. She will design three rooms, one featuring her original work, including a 9-foot-tall beaded mermaid fountain.

Josephson got into car art 12 years ago, after seeing a documentary about Harrod Blank, a California car artist, and attending the country's biggest art car event, held in Houston.

Nobody is certain how car art got started. Humans have been decorating their means of transportation since they rode elephants, camels and horses. In Josephson's view, the forerunner, if not the impetus, for art cars in the United States was author Ken Kesey's psychedelically painted bus.

Baltimore's art car event was started six years ago by AVAM, which, borrowing the idea from Houston, saw it as a way of bringing art to the masses.

"So many artists are frustrated because they can't get into galleries to show their work," said museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger. "The great thing about art car work is that doesn't matter. It's out there, like a roving billboard."

"People do it for different reasons," said Josephson. "For me, it's the guerrillalike function of art cars ... We're shifting this icon, this status symbol, and we're making it our own. I don't want anybody telling me that since I drive this car it means I live this way, or I'm a soccer mom. It just irritates me."

Josephson began her career as a musician, singing and playing bass with several nationally known recording artists, but she gave up the life at 28, not long after the birth of her son, who she says learned to walk on Arlo Guthrie's tour bus.

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