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Artcar exhibit leaves 'em wheeling


Some of Baltimore's most driven artists rolled into their exhibit at the Artscape festival yesterday morning in a conspicuous display of the auto-exotic.

Members of a small but dedicated "artcar" subculture arrived in a caravan, 15 strong, at their reserved parking spaces in front of the Lyric Opera House, seated inside their works of art.

They represent the core of a group of perhaps two dozen area artists, both amateur and professional, who have used coupes as their canvas or turned minivans into their masterpieces. Some merely apply outlandish, homemade paint jobs to the vehicles they drive everyday. Others have rebuilt clunkers from the chassis up as moving sculptures, or covered their vehicles with elaborate mosaics and paintings.

Locals boast that the city is a regional hotbed of the automobile-as-artwork. "Texas and California are way past us," says D.S. Bakker. "But on the East Coast, Baltimore definitely has a major presence."

This is the seventh year that artcar artists have exhibited their work at Artscape. But these kitschy, clever works still have the power to surprise.

"It's amazing how you can take thrown-away items, and recycle them and produce beauty," says Rosalyn Burns, a state employee from Pikesville. "I think the cars are so neat." But she said she could never drive one. "These draw a little more attention than I would want."

But Bakker isn't shy. When he bought a 1990 Plymouth Voyager minivan a few years ago to ferry his young family around, he worried about blending in with the middle-class masses.

"To get away from the stigma of that suburban minivan thing, I thought, 'I'm going to make this unusual,'" he recalls. So he bought $27 worth of glue and aluminum foil, cut the foil into 9-inch squares and began pasting them to the van. Now, he says, "it has kind of a space-shuttle look to it."

A few years ago, Clark and Martha Semmes of Washington went to the nation's famous artcar exhibition, at the annual Orange Show in Houston. "Someday you will make an artcar yourselves," one artist told Martha. "You won't be able to resist."

Neither Semmes is an artist, but last year they started forming swirling designs on their Toyota pickup using bottle caps held on by magnets. Being Washingtonians, they feel they need a conventional car for formal occasions, and have left their other vehicle unadorned. Now, Martha says, "we're thinking about moving to Baltimore. Maybe we could have two art cars here."

Bill Stevenson, 53, of Frankford, Del., stopped driving his 1958 Citroen 2CV a couple of years ago because he doesn't want to risk wrecking it. The antique French car he named Whimsy has been turned into a rolling mural, with paintings of tropical islands, a farm scene, a jungle, dragons, bunnies and naked ladies. It has figures painted inside and out - even in the wheelwells and engine compartment.

Four of his friends spent 600 artist-hours painting it when he was living in Maine in the early 1990s. Now he tows the award-winning work to shows. "It would appear that I have an awful lot of friends on the highway, because so many people wave," he says.

Driving an artcar isn't just exhibitionistic fun: It carries privileges:

Dan Van Allen, a Baltimore artist whose 1978 VW van is covered with designs inspired by Italian futurist paintings, says that a police officer once gave him the money to put in a parking meter.

Bakker was pulled over once while driving his properly registered and licensed aluminum foil-covered minivan along 33rd Street. "I didn't mean to startle you," the police officer said in apology. "I just wanted to know what persuaded you to do this to your car."

For most local artcar artisans, the annual Artscape exhibit is one of the year's highlights. A bleary-eyed Wayne Koscinski of Hampden stayed up all night Friday putting the finishing touches on his green 1942 Chevy pickup, with a blue biplane-and-shopping cart sculpture installed in the back.

When he finally finished, he hopped in the truck and started to race to Artscape. But the sculpture threatened to fly away. "You just can't drive at 50 mph with an airplane on your roof," says Koscinski, whose clothes were still spattered with blue paint.

Not all of Baltimore's artcar artists are represented at Artscape this year. Some may have had car trouble. Others are just too independent-minded for the event.

An Artscape regular - Conrad Bladey of Linthicum, best known for his bumper-sticker covered car -- boycotted the exhibition, failing to appear for the first time in seven years.

He says he was unhappy with the way artcar artists were treated by event organizers. And he objects to what he calls the increasing commercialization of the annual festival.

The opening of the exhibition came after the city's third annual "Artcar Caravan," a parade of 15 vehicles and an antique city fire truck that started around 10 a.m. at the American Visionary Art Museum on Key Highway.

Perhaps because it got little advance publicity, there were no crowds waiting to watch. The parade passed startled tourists, joggers and people standing at bus stops. It drew opened-mouth stares from a Cub Scout pack near the Washington Monument. After the initial shock, though, most people smiled and waved.

That's how everyone reacts to artcars, the artists say. "It's the best way to show your art," Bakker says. "You make the thing and you drive it around. You don't need a gallery. Everyone gets to enjoy it."

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