Art Car Macho

Mike Scranton's creations are the evilest looking things in the parade. And he'll wrassle anyone who says otherwise.

But Scranton, who in some ways has stepped into Scott Prescott's shoes, refuses to be daunted, perhaps because he doesn't want to miss his chance to command a huge, appreciative audience. "It's still the best thing in town," Scranton insists. "It's still the funnest day of the year."

A 20-foot stooping metal hominid announces the presence of Scranton's blue warehouse east of downtown. The Job Monster, as it is called, is fashioned from the rusted remains of a Honda and a Toyota, as if there were nothing better to do with a Honda and a Toyota than twist them into something stationary. The Job Monster hulks protectively over an old oil barrel, as if to keep its price from inflating. "It's my comment on the trade deficit," Scranton says.

The comment is contemptuous, yet born of adoration. It is offered by a guy who loves American cars. Scranton is happiest in the middle of a car city, in the middle of a car country, in the middle of art car season. Cars and motors are second nature to him; he grew up in a small town in Kansas, where his widowed grandmother ran the family machine shop. Scranton sorted nuts and bolts for the machinists, and learned to weld on the oil pumpers out on a neighbor's farm.

When Scranton was 12, his parents divorced and his mother moved the kids to a rival town. Scranton cleaned bird-dog kennels all summer to buy his first car, a '66 Corvair Monza Spider, before he was old enough to get a license.

His third town, where his father took him in after he became too much trouble for his mom, had a strict hierarchy. High school dropouts who worked at the local body shop were at the bottom; roughnecks were at the top. By the time he was 18, Scranton had worked his way up from the former to the latter. He knew he was at the top, because when he went to the town bars that served watered-down Kansas beer, his boss would plunk down a tumbler of tequila for the crew, and no one ever dared bother them. That was the life.

But by the time he was nearing 20, Kansas seemed small and its oil operations puny. Scranton came to Texas for one reason: big rigs. Because his older sister was an art student at UH, he made Houston his home base. She found him a room in the house of a sculptor friend, and he hung out at the Lawndale Art & Performance Center, the warehouse that then served as UH's art department. In those days, Lawndale was a combustive free-for-all, and Scranton liked the punk music blasting out of studios and the sparks showering from the welding torches in the shop. But he kept his mind on those big rigs.

He never did get work as a roughneck, but he visited the Texas rigs as a pipe inspector, and what he saw did not compare favorably to Kansas. "There were more rules, more com-pany men," he says. "You couldn't just, you know, swing off the derricks naked at night, if you wanted to." A series of jobs took him to Oklahoma, then Shreveport, where the failing oil economy threw him back down the career ladder. He found work at a restoration shop, perfecting other people's custom paint jobs, chopping cars and flaring fenders. In 1988, he got a call from his sister -- he'd been admitted to UH, she told him, and he had financial aid.

Once there, Scranton's welding skills soon attracted the attention of Bob Bourdon, then chair of the art department. Bourdon persuaded Scranton to major in art, giving him a scholarship, making him Bourdon's personal apprentice, and hiring him to assist with Bourdon's own metalworking commissions. By then, UH was a hotbed of art car activity, and it wasn't too long before Scranton wanted to make one of his own.

For a car lover, it was a renegade move. As is often noted, art cars simultaneously celebrate and desecrate that powerful symbol of contemporary life, which stands for independence and motion, conquest and pollution. Scranton's first car, God, Gold and Glory: Christopher Columbus European Death Machine, launched his tradition of reveling in technology while criticizing technology's fruits. It was 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's famous voyage, and Scranton had read a book detailing the explorer's imperialist sins. The car was like a slave ship, dominated by a giant cross, and armed with cannon-lobbed "diseases" -- actually pieces of confetti printed with names like "smallpox" and "bubonic plague."

As much as Scranton's creations are macho -- and this point is crucial to understanding the macho art car -- they lampoon that which is macho. "Usually something pisses me off," Scranton says, "and that's what motivates me." And what, exactly, pisses Scranton off enough to provoke the creation of these monstrous and sinister cars? Aggression, dominance and war.

God, Gold and Glory took a first-place trophy, as did Scranton's second car, which was prompted by the siege in Waco in 1993. God, Guns and Government: The David Koreshmobile was not just a car but a performance, complete with a posse of ATF agents, pews full of Koresh followers and a banner that read, "Leave us alone." When the Koresh compound burnt down the week before the parade, Scranton remembers, "The girls working on the car said it was a disgrace [to continue the project]. My take was: 'Fuck, man. We gotta tell the story. We gotta tell who started the fire.' "

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