Sunday, July 28, 2002
Section: City Weekly, Page 11

From all the e-mails he was getting weeks ago in California, it seemed to art-car artist Harrod Blank that the party in Boston was going to be the biggest gathering of art-car people in Massachusetts history. And on the evening of July 20, car by car, the party gathered momentum. A van-size pink piggy-bank one. A matte green Toyota with boxes for chalk by the rear-view mirrors. A shiny black Saab with suction-cupped lobster eyeballs, claws, legs, and a tail.

But at the start of things, a little after 6 p.m. on the clear night, the parking lot by the artists' studios in the old rum distillery on East Second Street was mostly empty. People sat talking under a tree near a keg and by tables with ginger ale, a box of cannoli, Italian sausages, and a vase of orange-yellow flowers. To liven things up, hostess and artist Alison Edwards went to her studio to get a grocery-bag sculpture she used to strap on the roof of her old art car.

She had decided to throw this party in honor of Blank, the art-car guru on a low-budget tour with his new book "Art Cars: The Cars, the Artists, the Obsession, the Craft." She met Blank at an art-car event years ago, before her own cloud-covered car broke down and she moved from Chicago, where she was used to having goofy parties. Here her life has been more serious and work-focused. For the few years, she has worked for the religion and arts initiative at Harvard Divinity School. On this Saturday evening, she was giving Chicago silliness a try in South Boston.

One of the first of the silly cars was the shiny black station wagon completely covered in shimmering quotations, written in small silver letters. On the passenger side: "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, but socially dead." And, "It's still not weird enough for me," on the bumper, which was not far from where the owner Pixel ("That's it. Just Pixel.") stood embracing his girlfriend, a black foxtail hanging straight down from the back waist of his jeans.

As people waited for Blank to arrive from the airport, they took cans of washable spray paint that Pixel happened to have in his car and applied it to Edwards's plain blue sedan. "He's departing from my scheme," said Edwards as she looked at the red heart with an arrow that was on a door. She had been thinking of painting her car with a cosmograph, a kind of religious map of the universe that she pictured with concentric circles of animal and musical symbols.

"Right now I'm working on collaborations," she said with resignation. Her friend Drew Bourn was impressed. "It's so much harder than just being a control queen, which is what I prefer," said Bourn, wearing a Men-Use-Condoms-or-Beat-It T-shirt and smiling as he held a brush and a jar of black paint.

Bourn, who is working on his Ph.D. dissertation about secrets in world religions, had never thought of doing an art car. "But now that I'm here, I'm thinking it might be fun," he said.

On the table behind them was a cake with pink and yellow piping, car keys stuck on the icing, and a sparkly sign with toothpick posts that said, "Art Car Extravaganza."

"Oh, honey, that is really cool," Edwards said happily.

"They are real keys, but I did wash them with soap and water," Tiffany York told her. "I washed them and polled two different people and said, `Is this disgusting?' "

Edwards had fastened her grocery bag sculpture to the roof of a friend's canary yellow truck in the lot. This was the first time she'd put it on in Boston. In Chicago people used to laugh at her when she drove by, thinking she was dumb for driving off without putting her groceries away. She wondered if here people would be more earnest, chasing after her with worried looks. Soon she would have to do a test.

Her friend Amelia Perkins, who hasn't owned a car since she was 16 ("That's pathetic," she said) had gone several times to Houston with Edwards for that city's annual art-car parade, the biggest in the country. Most art-car parties are in parking lots. "Because obviously you have to go to a party with your car," Perkins said.

She was expecting interesting things to happen this evening. "Most of the art-car guys are very cute," she said with a laugh. Blank was one of them. Tall, tanned, with a black blazer and black cowboy hat, he arrived and climbed out of a nondescript car. The friend who drove him, Howard Davis of Avon, used something ordinary instead of the VW bug he had turned into a big red push-button phone car, fearing airport security might not let him through.

As the two men lingered by the edge of the lot, a long white sedan covered with small plastic people rolled in blasting Bob Marley singing, "Sing the song of freedom . . . " Bubbles floated out from a box on the trunk and Blank looked on thoughtfully.

"Something's going on here. I can feel it," he said. Next came the pink piggy-bank van with "Pentagon $396 billion" written on the side.

A green Toyota 1987 FX hatchback that followed was a favorite, partly because of the surprise ("It's a chalkboard. Ahh."), partly because there was chalk for everybody. Bourn drew a labyrinth on the hood and then wrote in arcs and lines in his own Tolkien-inspired language.

"Can you believe it?" said Edwards, who wrote, "It has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I don't know what it is." Her own car was getting more and more decorated, too. A woman in orange pants with little round mirrors edged the heart in white spray paint. "It was definitely fun. I would do it again," she said. "I've never been to a party where I could paint a car."

Sometime around 9 p.m., Blank spread out his books and movie videos on a table, but he sold only one. People were too busy meeting each other, he figured. Blank's friend, on page 82, who had made his car, Duke, into a skull-and-travel-trunk tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, had driven down from Maine. "I just follow Harrod around the country," said Rick McKinney. "I'm his doctor."

It had turned out to be like the goofy parties Edwards used to have in Chicago.

"It's almost like coming home," she said a few days later. "This is my tribe." She was about to go to the car wash to rinse off the spray paint. The heart and polka dots and color smudges weren't art. All that, she said, was exuberance.