When I lived in Los Angeles, I’d often see the same car parked in the supermarket lot. You may wonder how I could possibly identify one car in a county with 7.5 million registered vehicles. Well, it was unique – and I’m not referring to the license plate. Every inch of this car was decorated with colored computer keys. It was the kind of mosaic project a time traveling Roman might embark upon. I was equally impressed and amused, and its presence elevated my grocery shopping experience from mundane to avant-garde.
However, it wasn’t we visited Houston that I appreciated the extent of the art car trend. The city is home to the largest art car parade in the world. It takes place every May, over Mother’s Day weekend. The event is free to attend and you can watch three hundred or so art vehicles cruise through the city. I say vehicles because parade entries have also included unicycles and lawnmowers!
Our trip didn’t coincide with Mother’s Day, but we still got a feel for the experience at the Art Car Museum. This small space only has room for about three cars inside, so displays rotate. We saw the winners of the 1996 and 2008 parades.
These pieces of rolling folk art are highly intricate. The creators must have earned carpal tunnel from hot gluing: ceramic owls, shards of mirror, shells, dolls, chinaware, plastic horses, and even a teakettle to metal. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the ‘figurehead’ attached to one of the vehicles: the taxidermied front half of a water buffalo!
We chatted to one of the museum’s employees. She talked about art cars doubling as political statements. During past parades, some of the vehicles have functioned as parts of larger pieces of performance art. She fondly remembered one year when an artist decided to protest an oil spill by dressing a car as a tanker (the auto equivalent of wearing drag?). The tanker trailed black plastic ‘oil’ behind it, complete with stuffed toy animals trapped in the goo. People in hazmat gear came after the tanker, to be followed by men in suits. The businessmen handed out fake $50 bills to the crowd and told them they didn’t see anything! Clearly art cars have the potential to make a point as much as they entertain.
You can’t miss The Art Car Museum. In every sense. The exterior has affectionately been referred to as the Garage Mahal. I would not be surprised to learn that the building was the product of collaboration between a 1950s nuclear scientist and an architect with a penchant for tin foil hats.
Speaking of metal exteriors… the Beercan House is less than a fifteen-minute drive away. Guaranteed to make you feel like a half-assed recycler, it is covered in roughly 50,000 cans.
This habitable artwork is the brainchild of John Milkovisch (1912-1988), a retired upholsterer. Ordinary blocks of townhouses line the rest of the road and the contrast only emphasizes the effect of so many silver disks, shimmering in the sun. Tours of the Beercan House are available on weekends and on some weekdays during the summer months. But Malone Street is not particularly busy and it’s easy enough to street park and gawp from the sidewalk.
Milkovisch once said: ‘it tickles me to watch people screech to a halt. They get embarrassed. Sometimes they drive around the block a couple of times. Later they come back with a car-load of friends…’ We didn’t know enough people in Houston to oblige him with a car-load of friends, but we certainly screeched to a halt.
So that’s a sampling of offbeat Houston. One attraction is devoted to getting works of art onto the road; another causes drivers to slam on the brakes to avoid veering off the road!
- The Art Car Museum is at 140 Heights Boulevard, between Washington Avenue and the Katy Freeway.
- The address for the Beercan House is 222 Malone Street. It is sandwiched between Memorial Drive and Washington Avenue.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.