If you find yourself tooling along near University Avenue this Sunday and you happen to peek in the rearview mirror and see 100 or so cars behind you, customized with hedges, neon lights and aquariums, take a deep breath and resist the impulse to call the police.
Martians have not landed. It’s just yet another group of participants in the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade, scheduled to get underway at 11 a.m.
While there are a lot of oddball things about Berkeley being celebrated in the parade, the artcars’ place shouldn’t surprise anybody.
According to Phil Northrup, “art-car-ist” and a co-organizer of the cars that appear in the event, Berkeley houses around one art car for every four thousand residents, the highest density in the country for the decidedly personal art form.
“One of the things about this festival is there’s a lot of tongue in cheek, a lot of self-effacement, which I think is nice,” says Northrup. He says Berkeley isn’t the only community that welcomes artcars, “but Berkeley thinks it’s especially wonderful and is especially nurturing to it.”
The artcars, from all over the country and Canada, will make their way up from University Avenue at Sacramento Street in West Berkeley, then park along the perimeter of Civic Center Park to receive the adulations of parade goers. The park is also the scene of the festival portion of the event, complete with entertainment, food and drink.
Northrup will have two rigs in the parade. He will drive his pride and joy, the “Buick of Unconditional Love,” a 1986 Buick Park Avenue once owned by his dad.
“A luxury automobile,” says Northrup of his hulking piece of Detroit iron. His artistic touches include welding 1941 Buick fenders on the side, making it eight feet wide, and adding 1959 vintage “Dagmar” bumpers in the back. A reference to the well-endowed 1940s actress, Dagmars are steel bullet bumpers that resemble, well, breasts.
The Buick also sports a school of spawning mummified fish on the hood and gardens on the back and roof.
A friend will cruise Northrup’s other rig, the “Truck in Flux,” a 1989 Ford Ranger he bought new and soon equipped with some options not available from his dealers—like a Spanish tile roof, neon-outlined 3-D steel flames on the front, and a live garden in the back.
“Over the years it has become quite dense,” Northrup says of his terrarium on wheels.
Northrup, 42, got his start modifying cars into rolling pieces of art over 20 years ago in Eugene, Oregon, while working as an artist making assemblages.
His first effort was a modest facelift for a 1983 Chevy Vega, a much-unloved vehicle of its time. “It was a piece of crap car that I didn’t think represented who I was very well so I put zebra stripes on it and some deer horn antlers. In retrospect, a fairly modest modification and I got such great feedback I thought wow, this is great,” says Northrup.
But it wasn’t till Northrup found himself in Los Angeles in the early 90s working at an art museum and the Truck in Flux that he discovered he wasn’t alone.
Friends told him he needed to go to an artcar show in Santa Monica. Northrup didn’t know what an artcar was, but figured he better check it out.
There he met fellow artcar enthusiast and Berkeley filmmaker Harrod Blank who can be scene driving around town in his van equipped with dozens of working cameras.
Blank, who’s made two films on artcars and is finishing up a third, is considered something of a seminal figure in the artcar world, says Northrup.
Like many artcar builders, Northrup worked in isolation until he met Blank. “He’s a main instigator of the artcar movement. He goes around extensively in his artcar meeting everybody and is very much a galvanizing force,” says Northrup.
Soon Northrup, who now works as an executive producer of animation CD-Roms in San Jose, joined forces with Blank to create the ArtCar Fest, an annual showing of artcars that coincides with the How Berkeley Can You Be? parade. In addition to the vehicles’ appearance in the parade, today the caravan will visit Bay Area schools and tomorrow they’ll strut their stuff at the San Jose Museum of Art. For more information visit www.artcarfest.com.
The group defines an artcar as any vehicle that’s been permanently altered, is street legal and insured.
“These aren’t parade floats. Anyone can whip something together in a weekend that’s twenty feet tall, but it’s something else that’ll take you to work and pass inspection and it’s also a sculpture,” says Northrup.
In addition to the artcars and other parade entries, this year’s How Berkeley Can You Be? parade will also feature food and drink booths and entertainment beginning at 12:30 p.m. in Civic Center Park.
The park is located between Milvia and Martin Luther King Jr. Way behind the Civic Center and across from Berkeley High School. Scheduled to perform on two stages will be, among others, emcee and Buddhist radio personality Scoop Nisker, South African dance music group Zulu Spear, the 35-piece Punk Rock Orchestra, beatbox virtuosos Tim Barsky and Vowel Movement and country music heartthrob Loretta Lynch.
For more information go to www.howberkeleycanyoube.com.