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After two decades on the road, art cars still rev up the imagination at Artscape

At first glance — best shielded, given the sun's fierce glare reflected from all the chrome — the 7,500-pound, 29-feet-long "Finnjet" suggests transport for intergalactic travelers with a pronounced sense of humor.

More than 80 lights and three dozen mirrors adorn the surface of this vehicle, not to mention a large model of the Space Shuttle on the roof, metal sculptures of stingrays, and a Barbie doll encased in a silver high-heeled shoe, stuck onto the lower edge of the driver's door.

"Finnjet," created by Finnish-born, Florida-based Antti Rahko, is just one of the eye-catching vehicles on display this weekend at the Art Car Show, a perennially popular feature of Artscape, the sprawling Baltimore venture billed as the largest free arts festival in the country.

This 32nd annual Artscape is expected to attract more than 300,000 people before wrapping up Sunday night. A good many of them are likely to wend their way to the Art Car Show, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the festival.

"When we surveyed volunteers at Artscape to find out what the 10 most-asked questions were, 'Where are the art cars?' was always in the top 10," said Gary Kachadourian, the former coordinator of Artscape who helped organized the first Art Car Show.

Over the years, attendees have seen such unexpected sights as a car crawling with plastic lobsters that jumped up and "sang" the "Hallelujah Chorus," and the quintessential Baltimore auto — encased in Formstone, of course.

Entries in the 2013 lineup include a truck adorned with bottle caps, a hearse that promises a "swan song" experience, and a Chevy Camaro painted with vivid scenes of superheroes.

Those examples seem rather tame next to "Finnjet," which Rahko crafted from two Mercedes diesel station wagons, fused together to provide the foundation for this wild version of a stretch limo.

"It's my hobby," said Rahko, 74. "I started it 10 years ago. There are 50 different auto parts on it," he added, pointing out grafted bits of a 1955 Cadillac and 1958 Buick.

It took three days to drive the "Finnjet" to Baltimore from the artist's home in Palm Beach. "We went 55 miles per hour," he said.

On the rear portion of the roof is a sign that reads: "Thank you Lord for humor." It's the kind of message you might expect on an art car.

"We're not doing very fine, museum art," said Bob Hieronimus, 69, a native Baltimorean who has participated in the Artscape show since 2005. "Art cars are fun to be with, and they can be just funny."

Serious, too. Painted on nearly every square inch of his Mercedes are scenes that add up to what Hieronimus calls "We the People."

There are references to the Native American influences on early American history; portraits of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker; assorted symbols; and, for good measure, tributes to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

"You used to see more art cars making an important statement or telling stories," Hieronimus said. "Some artists are now more interested in forms, shapes and colors that elicit a 'Wow, look at that.' They're less intellectual, maybe, but they're getting more beautiful. And they're funny."

Achieving that beauty or that wit doesn't come cheap. Hieronimus spent more than $30,000 on his art car.

Clarke Bedford, 66, a former Baltimore resident who now lives in Hyattsville, figures he has about $5,000 worth of material attached to "Vanadu," his transformation of a 1988 Ford Econoline van.

Inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree …"), and by the never-finished mansion called "Xanadu" in the classic film "Citizen Kane," "Vanadu" is a fantasy in found objects. It looks as if the original vehicle, interior and exterior alike, had been covered in glue or magnets and dipped into an antique shop.

A statue of 17th-century English poet John Milton serves as a hood ornament. A couple of art nouveau windows can be spotted on one side amid innumerable, vibrant items that appear to be randomly attached, yet somehow form a cohesive whole.

Not that this is necessarily the artist's final word. Like Citizen Kane's Xanadu, Bedford's project may remain a work-in-progress. "Every year it seems to grow a little more," he said.

"Vanadu," "Finnjet" and the others in this year's show reflect the diversity of the art car genre, which has its roots in customized hot rods in the 1950s and brightly painted vans driven by hippies in the '60s.

The concept got wider attention after the launch of the Houston Art Car Parade in 1986 — it remains a big event, with 270 entries at the 2013 parade in May — and the Art Car Museum, also in Houston.

"It's a sub-genre of art that has the ability to be more and, occasionally, is more," Kachadourian said. "There are artists with no training, who just want to make a personal statement when they go down the road, and academy- or museum-oriented artists who use the cars to address cultural issues."

Whatever the inspiration or message, art cars have clearly found a niche at Artscape.

"Art cars are friendly," Kachadourian said. "People think, 'I could do that. I wouldn't, but I could.' They can envision how their boring car could be radicalized."

Not everyone sees the beauty in art cars.

"I do get lectured by blue-haired ladies from time to time, who tell me, 'You have ruined this Mercedes,' " Hieronimus said.

Mostly, though, a smile is the reaction from Artscape visitors.

"I think the crowds really relate to such a common object, the household car, being transformed in surprising ways," said Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum, where the art cars will gather Saturday morning for a parade across town to the Art Car Show site.

"I think that the success of the art cars at Artscape is because everybody has a vehicle. And if you have an old clunker, through the miracle of Bondo and paint and imagination, you can make it the car of your dreams. I think that's why they have such enduring popularity."

If you go

Artscape runs 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday in and around Mount Vernon and Station North. Most of the local art is showcased on Charles Street between Mount Royal and North Avenue. The Wells Fargo Main Stage is at 1400 Cathedral St. The Art Car Parade is scheduled to move through Artscape about 11 a.m. Saturday and proceed to the Art Car Show location at 1700 N. Charles St.

Admission is free. Call 410-752-8632 or go to

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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