Getting the Show on the Road 

They're not monstrosities, they're social glue. The Art Cars are coming.

The Art Car Festival isn't parade floats or objets d'art on wheels, it's all about the cars -- licensed, registered, legal automobiles that have been permanently altered by artists. The perennial favorite East Bay phenomenon revs up Thursday with a caravan of about eighty uniquely wacky vehicles, and winds down Sunday at the annual "How Berkeley Can You Be?" parade, with stop-offs in between.

"The thing about art cars is that many of us drive them every day -- you can see them at the supermarket parking lot and on the highway," says Philo Northrup, who with Harrod Blank created the Bay Area's first festival in 1996. "Art car festivals are fun, but the normal context for an art car is in the world."

Artist/filmmaker Blank calls it a gathering of the tribes -- the ultimate celebration of the cars and the artists who create them. They drive from myriad parts of the United States, plus a few from Canada. "It's an exciting, collective manic energy of festivity," Blank says. He views the art car as social glue. "I think that's what it's about. When people see an art car they generally smile, maybe laugh. They may think it's ridiculous, but at least they laugh."

Serious car people may find it offensive to "take a nice Mustang" and cover it with shells. But the car does engage them, like film or TV. "I believe art cars are a form of media in our culture. They offer ideas, and may force us to reflect on ourselves," says Blank. "They offer the spirit of individuality and passion."

Emily Duffy of El Cerrito is known for her Mondrian Mobile, a tribute to the Dutch painter. Duffy is also showing off her second car, the Vain Van, a shrine to vanity as well as an indictment of the advertising industry. Hair curlers and other beauty helpers adorn the minivan, along with Duffy's painted images and words. Headlights peek out from a huge bra, created from scores of smaller black bras -- and the rear end is covered with representations of fatty foods.

Ron Dulce only has one art car. "It took me eighteen years, that's why," explains Dulce, who knew he was finished when every inch was covered in glass. Bright-colored pieces of glass, marbles, and glass beads create a gorgeous quilt pattern on his Volkswagen Bug. Although the car is now complete, people still show up at his door with boxes of glass. "I'm inlaying my driveway with marbles and glass," says the Oakland resident.

Philo Northrup's Flux Truck is his fourth art car. "I bought it new in 1990. It began as sort of a Tiki truck with bamboo trim, and has been changing ever since," he notes. "It now has a three-dimensional steel flame, a Spanish tile roof, and a garden in the back." Northrup works organically. "I kind of grow the cars, especially this one."

The caravan begins around noon Thursday from Berkeley's Venezia Restaurant (1799 University Ave.). For more information visit or call 510-849-4688.


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