Metallic dragons, wide-eyed hippos, singing fish, superhero mobiles, candy-painted slabs and gloriously colored low riders – every spring they invade Downtown streets en masse. And we welcome them home to Houston, these moving sculptures created by men, women, families, companies, non-profits and students, all ready to join in the annual Art Car Parade. This April heralds a special anniversary for the beloved procession that’s become a city institution. It’s been three decades since the Orange Show brought the Art Car Parade to town.
While the origins of the Art Car Parade are as creatively chaotic as some of the art cars themselves, one rather pivotal but mostly unsung moment in Art Car Parade history occurred in the late 1970s, not in Texas but in Los Angeles, where Houston arts patron and business leader Marilyn Oshman was browsing through an LA art gallery. She looked out the window and saw a giant head of lettuce rolling down the street.
“I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m having delusions.’ I ran out the door to get a better look. When I ran back in, the girl at the gallery told me about a crazy artist who made art out of cars,” says Oshman But when she asked the name of this leafy vegetable car creator, the girl couldn’t tell her.
“From that moment on, I asked everybody in LA, but nobody knew who did it.”
As much as Oshman never forgot this encounter with her first art car, she also remembered the local arts community’s attitude towards any artists who thought cars and art could and should mix.
“Everyone kind of turned up their nose at them,” she remembers. This was certainly not an attitude shared by Oshman, the woman who would only a few years later lead the charge to save Houston folk artist Jeff McKissack’s monument to the orange, The Orange Show, and help to create the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.
“The real spirit of the Orange Show is about freedom of expression,” says Oshman. “In the art world there’s a caste system. It’s breaking up, but there is a kind of caste system about the way artists get designated and what’s OK and what’s not OK.” Oshman’s years of art patronage have given her a distinctly different perspective.
“What I really learned is that people exist who just have this intuitive ability to do art all over the world,” she says, “What evolves out of giving admiration and respect to people who are really creative is more creation and good spirits. And a community of people starts to evolve around all these good feelings.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when art cars began to metaphorically appear in the Orange Show’s side-view mirror, they were easily merged into Houston’s bustling folk art traffic.
Discovery Green programming director, Suzanne Theis, who was executive director for the Orange Show for over two decades, recalls the early ‘80s as the beginning of a kind of art car movement, although the cars weren’t quite the elaborate, whimsical and sometimes political rolling statements we know and love today.
“There were a number of painted cars, some were made by people associated with the University of Houston art program, Jackie Harris in particular, and there were a few that were just random cars that you would see on the street,” says Theis.
A few events happened around the mid 80s that accelerated the art car movement. The show Collusion at the Lawndale Art Center featured two art cars, and for the Orange Show’s 1984 gala, Jackie Harris was asked to paint the old family car that supporters Kit and Carl Detering were donating for the gala auction.
Theis remembers how at the time painting a lovingly used ‘67 Ford station wagon seemed appropriate for an Orange Show fundraiser. “You would go to other galas and see a brand new BMW for auction, but the Orange Show would auction an old car.”
That car would be transformed by Harris into the Fruitmobile, bought by art patrons and then donated back to the Orange Show Foundation. The Fruitmobile was used as a kind of ambassador of folk art to the public and quickly became one of the most famous art cars ever created.
In 1986, Houston glimpsed an early incarnation of what an art car parade could be, when Rachal Hecker and Trish Herrera organized a procession of painted and decorated cars for the New Music America Festival. The parade ended at the grand opening of the Museum of Fine Arts Cullen Sculpture Garden and turned into a kind of alternative celebration. A year later when the Houston Festival, which would later become the International Festival, wanted a big art event to replace a sculpture show along Buffalo Bayou, they went to the Orange Show for help.
It was Theis who had the idea for an expanded art car parade, not just with painted cars but fully sculpted art cars. Oshman advocated for the addition of low riders, a personal favorite type of artistic car.
The parade started small and early, with only 40 cars winding their way through Downtown Houston to end near the festival area.
“My job that first parade was to wake people who were sleeping on the street because there was no one else to watch the parade,” remembers Theis. “It was not well attended until we got inside to the festival.,” But those who did watch remembered. And the word spread.
The next year the number of cars doubled, and the number of people who came out to see the parade went from a couple of thousand to tens of thousands.
“One of the things I didn’t understand, and it was the happiest thing to learn, was just how contagious it was,” Theis says of those early years. “People came out to see the cars, and then they decided that they wanted to make one too. We saw lots of ordinary people get involved.”
Perhaps this idea is the best theory as to how and why the parade has expanded exponentially over 30 years to become the largest gathering of its kind in the world. From that small beginning of 40 cars, the parade is now counted as one of the largest annual public events in the city. Hundreds of thousands of people now line the streets to watch the weird and wondrous cavalcade of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bikes and occasional motorized porta-potties stretch over miles, as they marvel at the creativity and artistry of people, many of whom would never call themselves artists.
“It has said something to me about how fun and innovative and enthusiastic Houston is that people just embraced this, and had all kinds of amazing ideas,” says Theis. “Some of the most astonishing art cars that we saw were from people who didn’t think themselves as artists. They just thought: that looks like fun. I want to do that. We’re also a city that loves our cars, and all those things come together in the art car parade.”
“Why couldn’t your car be your canvas?” says Oshman of Houston’s art car realization. “As the art cars started developing all on their own, they became a symbol of self expression. You don’t have to accept what General Motors gave you. It’s your car; it’s your canvas. I think people like that. I don’t even know if they understand why they like it, but I think it’s the ability to express yourself to a community.”
According to Oshman, attending the parade also helps the rest of us understand the diversity and powerful creativity of our community.
“The more people that see the parade, the more often you see the parade, the more you understand your city,” she says.
One person who would catch the art car bug during those first years and spread it to thousands was Rebecca Bass. Bass was an art teacher at Edison Middle School in HISD. She had seen that first New Music America Festival proto-parade and was already intrigued by art cars. But after attending that first official Art Car Parade, she realized that not only did she want to build an art car herself, she wanted her students to become art car artists, as well. She went to the Edison principal with the idea and soon had approval and a not-so-whopping $200 budget.
Though she had never tried this type of sculpting before she put her foot to the proverbial pedal and zoomed ahead.
“I did the whole thing at once,” she says of learning to build an art car and teaching kids how to sculpt on such a scale. “I’m an innovated, different kind of art teacher anyway. We needed some community art projects and I love building stuff, and I believe in working together in groups and all that fun stuff. It was just perfect, but I didn’t know how perfect because I had never done one before. I didn’t know anything.”
Yet, that first car The Bodyshop went on to win a major award in the 1990 parade. Every year since she’s played art car coach to groups of middle school and high school students whose entries have won awards in one or multiple categories. Still, Bass believes creating the arts cars themselves is where her students find their real reward, learning about design, problem-solving, teamwork, and that most important art and life lesson that sometimes “gravity sucks.”
Over the years, Bass has shared her experience with hundreds of educators and given talks on building art cars as part of learning projects for student. In her presentations she conveys what to do and what not to do.“Because I’ve done everything wrong,” she says. “I’ve done 30 art cars, and I’ve done everything that you could to screw up.”
When pondering why the building of art cars became such an influential experience in her student’s lives, Bass explains that she believes it helped them understand that art is for everyone can be found everywhere.
“It’s not just on a wall in a museum,” she says. It’s going through the drive-thru at McDonalds. It’s taking art to the people, to the regular people. My students always say ‘Miss Bass you taught me that art’s not just in the Museum of Fine Arts.’ There’s nothing wrong with the Museum of Fine Arts. But it’s not just that. You don’t have to have a fancy degree. If you want to make art just to make art, you can.”
Many of her students have kept art alive in their lives, some becoming professional artists and some going on to create their own individual art cars.
“It was an experience and a half. I’m still amazing friends with some of those kids. Well shoot,” Bass corrects, “they’re 40-year-old people now.”
Last year during the parade’s award ceremony, one of those “40-year-old-people,” once a young girl in that first Edison Middle School group, came up to Bass to introduce herself again.
“She followed me in the paper, and she wanted to come tell me thank you. I just held on to her and cried,” describes Bass.
The realization that art cars could be learning tools was but one change the parade and Houston went through as it sped out of the 20th century into the 21st. Corporations and non-profit organizations started sponsoring cars or encouraging their own people to work on one together. Theis never anticipated how work groups and organizations might want to come together to make art cars, but she soon realized that people saw that creating an art car could be a compelling way to tell a story for an individual or a group.
Meanwhile, the hours-long parade expanded into a half-day affair and then became a weekend full of activities, including an Art Car Ball. When that got a little too much for the Orange Show to handle, they let the artists organize their own party before taking it back in 2010 under the Art Car weekend umbrella, where it remains.
In the early 2000s the Art Car Parade and International Festival when their separate ways. Orange Show officials scheduled the parade for its own weekend.
The parade route has meandered over the years, sometimes going deep into Downtown, sometimes remaining on the periphery and Allen Parkway. In 2015, a Starting Line Party parked the cars along Smith Street before the parade began. This allowed the public to get even closer to the vehicles, talk with the artists and, with permission of course, even touch these mobile sculptures.
“Putting everything Downtown and getting the cars closer together really made an extraordinary experience,” says Oshman. “I thought just walking through the cars was even better than the parade last year. It wasn’t exactly organized, but I thought it was amazing.”
Though as of January organizers were still finalizing the route for this 30th anniversary celebration, Oshman says they want to continue to have the Starting Line Party, to encourage the public to come out early to interact with the cars and artists, and to keep a Downtown focus. And while Oshman is happy to reminisce about Art Car Parade history she basically is “a forward-looking girl.”
“There’s a lot of thought being poured into this particular parade because it really represents a moment,” she says of the important anniversary. “It has so much meaning to so many different people and parts of the city. We want to have something great going. We want to look to the future.”