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Arts & Culture

Why Art Thou?

Cars are commodities mass-produced by the millions. But once they roll off the showroom floor, they take on a life of their own. Each ding or dent tells a story, from original owner to everyone who eventually sits behind the wheel. But for some, those tales get much more detailed, blurring the line between eclectic [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Cars are commodities mass-produced by the millions. But once they roll off the showroom floor, they take on a life of their own. Each ding or dent tells a story, from original owner to everyone who eventually sits behind the wheel.

But for some, those tales get much more detailed, blurring the line between eclectic transportation and traveling exhibition. They’re called “art cars”, and those who create them are part of a growing movement that is increasingly impossible to ignore.

“All around the world and throughout time, there have been decorated vehicles—from gypsy wagons, or the decorated trucks of Pakistan, to the buses of Haiti,” explained Greg Phelps, who is currently driving his third art car. “But they really didn’t take off in the US until the ’70s when people first started to glue on their cars, turning them into more than just a metal canvas.”

Phelps got his start in 1997 with a Mazda Miata featuring a two-dimensional design, but it wasn’t until a couple years later after a conversation with another local artist that he took his design to the next level.

“Ramona Moon had been gluing on her cars out in San Francisco before moving back to her hometown of Columbus,” he recalled. “That’s when I first realized you could effectively attach elements to your car, and I haven’t stopped since.”

Silicone is the adhesive of choice for many art car creators—flexible enough for daily driving, yet durable enough for regular washing. Phelps plays it safe with an ordinary sprayer for occasional cleaning, but admits it takes a lot longer than you’d think to get the soap out of all of the “nooks and crannies.”

“I have a whole host of things on it, like a mohawk of Barbie legs as a tribute to the synchronized swim team at Ohio State,” he explained. “The mirrors on the rims have survived five years of Ohio winters.”

Creativity is often contagious, and just as Phelps was inspired decades ago, he too continues to recruit, working with local high school and college students to create their own incarnations. You’ll find a few artfully adorned golf carts zipping around the campus of Ft. Hayes. Collaboration with an OSU sculpture class even led one student to do her Masters thesis on the cultural phenomenon.

“I often tell parents to encourage their new teenage drivers to create one,” he said. “It lets them be rebellious, but remain conspicuous. You can’t drive aggressively or cut people off in an art car.”

Road rage is a foreign concept for those rolling around in vehicles covered in colorful plastic doodads. Smiles are expected at a parade, but even police can’t contain their grins as he putters past. So long as he’s not speeding and nothing falls off, law enforcement pays him no mind.

“I honk and wave whenever I see police officers,” he said. “It’s not like I could get away with robbing a bank in it.”

The quirky creations aren’t just child’s play, though a love of toys and a stash of little pieces and parts doesn’t hurt. Phelps can still spot an easy mark, like Jason Williams, owner of Big Fun, the Short North shop notorious for nostalgia. His unmistakable Volkswagen Vanagon turned Star Trek shuttle craft is as meticulous and mesmerizing as his store.

“I gave him that first tube of glue and a caulking gun as a challenge,” he quipped. “Now his entire roof is this epic history of politics and conflict told through plastic figures.”

Phelps’ own car is more autobiographical, including subtle nods to fellow art cars he admires. The exterior accessories are too difficult to transplant from one car to the next, but his “Deities of the Dash” representing the world’s major and lesser-known religions does migrate from one project vehicle to its successor.

There are often lingering misconceptions about the movement, like the idea that owners are simply attention seekers.

“It’s actually the opposite. I want to give people attention,” Phelps noted. “There are few things that can draw strangers together into a shared conversation faster than standing around an art car.”

Though many have high miles, they aren’t all “beaters” someone decided to repurpose after years of neglect. Most start as reliable models that are easy to maintain, to avoid all of that effort meeting an early end. But even the best cars never last forever.

“I donated my first car to the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, which has a collection of art cars,” he revealed. “The second, I donated to Open Heart Creatures. It had nearly 200k miles on it.”

Given his ideal afterlife, Phelps said he wouldn’t mind his current car becoming part of the collection of local art on display at the Greater Columbus Convention Center—preferably suspended from the wall or ceiling—joining “As We Are”, the giant selfie LED head, as one of the city’s most photographed art installations.

Until then, art cars are already attracting plenty of attention at Hot Times, the annual community arts and music festival in Olde Towne East. The dozen or so local creations are joined by almost as many from surrounding states, enough to earn some international interest as well—most notably Haider Ali, renown Pakistani truck artist.

“He created a truck for the Smithsonian’s Silk Road exhibit in 2002. I saw it when I was in DC and it blew me away. I looked him up on Facebook a few years ago and we became friends,” Phelps recalled. “Last year, he came to Columbus and painted a vehicle for the CRC [ClintonvilleBeechwold Community Resources Center] which they use to transport senior citizens to their doctors appointments. He loved it so much, he returned this year and painted a passenger van they use to take seniors to the grocery store and social gatherings.”

You’d think Phelps would be overly protective of his autodidactic art exhibition, but he’ll still let valets park it, and does so often. He’s found it’s the easiest way to get a prime parking space for curious onlookers and as a popular backdrop for photographers and impromptu portraits.

“Valets always treat it with great care, as if it were an exotic sports car,” he chided. “I get the best spot and people will walk past a Lamborghini to check out my Nissan. I call it ‘carma.’” •

For details on the Hot Times Arts & Music Festival, visit hottimesfestival.com.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Kate Morgan, 2D mixed media artist

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Kate Morgan began developing her ghostly, layered two-dimensional portraits after going back to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 2005. She already had some background in visual arts through her work in fashion and commercial photography, so the transition to drawing and painting was organic.

Morgan’s textured collages are inspired by folklore, mythology and a variety of artistic periods — especially Byzantine art. The 2011 Columbus Arts Festival Emerging Artist alum and 2019 exhibiting artist welcomes a wide array of complex themes into her pieces — including symbolic, cultural, historical and spiritual themes — while utilizing layers of vintage paper and original drawings to create visual depth and a sense of mystery.

Her pieces are purposely vague, leaning toward more minimalistic ideas to allow for wider interpretation by audiences. Largely her art depicts the female form, with as many layers and stories to tell as that of every human being. This is done with an eclectic assortment of materials — including sheet music, German Biblical pages, newspaper and maps — to add detail in both a topical and textural sense.

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And yet, Morgan still continues to look for a challenge. From venturing away from her familiar blue hues to exploring different mediums like ceramics, her work knows no creative limits.

Morgan has exhibited at the Columbus Arts Festival nearly every year since 2011. She has gone on to win two jurors’ choice awards in the 2D category at the Columbus Arts Festival, as well as sell and have work juried at other major festivals across the country. In Columbus, her work can be seen as part of the Columbus Makes Art and Donatos Pizza collaborative mural “Every Piece Is Important” at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport.

Morgan has a BFA from CCAD and currently works out of her Franklinton studio in Columbus. Experience this stunning work first hand when you visit her at booth M572 on the Main Street Bridge during the Columbus Arts Festival from June 7-9 at the downtown riverfront.

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Arts & Culture

Be Square: Changes coming to arts community at 400 W Rich

Mike Thomas

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If you haven’t visited the thriving arts community at 400 West Rich street in awhile, you might be surprised to see how much things have changed. Now, the minds behind the city’s hub for the arts are changing things up to better reflect the area’s evolution.

400 Square is the new collective moniker for the array of concepts that currently occupy the buildings on the 400 block of Rich street in Franklinton. The rebrand seeks to unify the community of artistic innovators who call the area developed by Urban Smart Growth their creative home.

Promo art for 400 Square by Anthony Damico

Spaces encompassed in the rebrand include Strongwater, The Vanderelli Room, and Chromedge Studios, and of course, the studios at 400 W. Rich. While the name may be changing, the group remains committed to providing and sustaining a thriving hub for creatives through education, resources, and entertainment opportunities in the area.

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With the launch of 400 Square, Urban Smart Growth Director of Operations Seth Stout has led his team to develop new offerings for each of the growing spaces. Food and Beverage Director Lauren Conrath and Events Director Molly Blundred have taken the lead with changes to the Strongwater brand, while Community Director Stephanie McGlone and Art Director AJ Vanderelli are facilitating programming for all ages and abilities on the artist side.

Through all of the changes on the way, the staff at 400 Square are committed to bringing the public the same high quality of workshops, events, exhibitions, and more that have always been part of their unique creative community.

Stay tuned for more info—the new 400 Square officially rolls out during the weekend of Columbus Arts Fest 2019, June 7-9.

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Arts & Culture

Arts Fest Preview: Cousin Simple to wow crowd with energy, passion

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As a young up-and-coming band, Cousin Simple is excited to play at this year’s Columbus Art’s Festival. In their two years as a band, they have already done a lot of really cool things, such as making a single with L.A. multi-platinum music producer David Kershenbaum, playing at Vans Warped Tour at Blossom Music Center, and selling out shows at the A&R Bar, the Basement and The Big Room Bar. But there is much more they want to accomplish including recording more music, making a music video and playing more shows in and out of Columbus.

The band members are all Columbus born and raised. Four members currently attend The Ohio State University, while their drummer Joel is finishing up his junior year at New Albany high School. Cousin Simple brings an energy and passion to the stage and gives everything they have to their performances, regardless of the crowd size. They just released a new single in February called Honeybee, available on iTunes and Spotify and have a single set to release May 10 titled “Star Destroyers.”

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Columbus is a great city for musicians. Whether you’re in the indie, rock, or hip hop scene, there are other musicians and music industry people willing to help you out. Columbus also takes a great sense of pride in its “local gems.” People love to see musicians who are doing well in their hometown and are willing to support them in many ways.

There are so many organizations that have taken this to heart and are helping bands get great opportunities. CD102.5, WCBE 90.5, PromoWest Productions and the Columbus Music Commission have helped Cousin Simple get airtime, shows and support. When it comes to music cities, Columbus may not be the first place that comes to mind, but there are so many bands and musicians doing exciting things it’s making the future bright for them and the Columbus music scene.

But Cousin Simple recognizes that none of this would be possible without the support of their family, friends and FANS that come to each and every show. They are humbled and motivated by their audiences who energize them to make every performance an experience their fans won’t forget. 

Cousin Simple will perform on the Big Local Music Stage on Rich Street on Friday night, June 7 at 7:45 p.m.

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