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For the love of dressing up cars

Kim Melton
Thursday September 26, 2002

Berkeley resident Harrod Blank, 39, was embarrassed to be seen driving a plain white 1965 Volkswagen bug. So he painted a rooster on it. It reminded him of the chickens he grew up with near the Santa Cruz Mountains. But he didn’t stop there.  

For 12 years Blank added stuff to his bug. The original white paint is now barely visible under the hood’s beach ball motif and the roof’s television and spinning sunflowers. The bumpers are made of plastic fruit and spoons. In place of a hood ornament sits a miniature Santa Clause with a plastic globe on its head.  

Blank described his car as a “mosaic” of what he feels and believes. “The pinnacle of my career is this car,” he said. 

Blank’s car he named Oh My God! is one of 80 vehicles participating in the ArtCar Fest this weekend in Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose. When Blank and fellow artist Philo Northrop dreamed up the festival in 1997, they saw it as an opportunity for local artists to share their ideas and car creations. But now the festival has expanded to include cars from across the country and Canada 

Blank’s Volkswagon is familiar to many Berkeley residents. He drives it daily to get coffee. Inside the car, every inch is covered with objects of different colors and textures. On the front dashboard are words spelled out in scrabble letters. The ceiling is a collage of items like church fans, shamrocks and coins. 

On his second “artcar,” Blank used only cameras to decorate it. He secured 1,705 cameras to his 1972 Dodge van from fender to hood. Camera Van, which debuted in 1995, also has 10 working cameras that take pictures of people’s reactions. On a trip across the country, he took more than 5,000 pictures.  

According to fellow artist Kathleen Pearson, 23, of Bisbee Ariz., artcars are the ultimate way to showcase creativity. “We can take art to the masses,” Pearson said. “Being a painter and sculptor, your art only gets seen in galleries and museums. But cars are free for the public. It reaches people who would not normally walk into an art gallery.” 

Her first car, Gradually Love, is filled with childhood memorabilia like Minnie Mouse, Snoopy and Ninja turtles. Pearson hopes the 4,800 objects in the automobile will trigger childhood memories that make people smile.  

Pearson’s second car, Hex Mex, blends her Pennsylvania Dutch background with the Mexican influences of her Arizona hometown. Brightly painted with tulips, windmills and flamingos, the car is modestly accented with a pink ice cream cone and psychedelic Amish women on the roof and on the hood, large black and white dice. 

While some artists design their cars to express themselves, others used their cars to send a message. Emily Duffy’s car, Vain Van, addresses women’s issues.  

The front of Vain Van is covered with hundreds of bras organized in the shape of a giant bra that surrounds the headlights. The mirrors are bordered with gloves. The roof is filled with curlers and the back with fattening foods like donuts and potato chips. 

On the sides of the van is where Duffy makes her statement. She has written, “Who profits from your self-loathing?” Drawn beneath the back windows are a measuring tape and scale with the words, “I look fat? By whose measure?” 

“Women literally run up to me,” Duffy said, “and they just say ‘thank, thank you, thank you.’” 

Artcar designers say their trade takes not only artistic enthusiasm but time and commitment. 

“Some people say I have Peter Pan syndrome or I am Tom Hanks in ‘Big,’” said Berkeley’s Blank. “I have fun all the time. I don’t have a real job and I live in a shack in the back of my Dad’s house.” 

“It is not real lucrative,” he admits. “I can’t sell it like I would a painting. Cars are like stock. They generate some revenue but they take a lot to maintain.” 

The ArtCar Fest begins today with a reception and book signing for Harrod Blank’s new book ‘Art Car,’ an in-depth look at more than 20 artists and their artcars. The Fest will continue in San Jose Thursday and Friday, San Francisco on Saturday and finally conclude in Berkeley all day Sunday.