Art Car Macho

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

Scranton and Prescott aren't the only practitioners of art car macho. In fact, photographer George Hixson likens Art Car Weekend to an annual meeting of the five great Indian nations. Houston's various underground clans -- artists, gearheads, behind-the-scenes movie crewmen, eccentrics -- meet in a spring ritual of last-man-standing showmanship and friendly competition. In Hixson's anthropological taxonomy, the clans are loosely defined and overlapping. But the important elements are in place: a hierarchy, respected elders like Prescott and a tribal code that values inventive genius (particularly when applied to the funner things in life) and a fair amount of chaos.

Of course, few clan members take things as seriously as Scranton. Artists Noah Edmundson and Paul Kittelson, who have won their fair share of art car recognition, act as the jokers of macho. Whereas Scranton is concerned with all-terrain capability, Edmundson and Kittelson are concerned with their victuals. That's why they built the Bad Taste BBQ, a VW bug transformed into a meat smoker. On parade days, they cook breakfast on the smoker in the morning, then tow it through the streets of downtown while their cabrito softens into an evening feast.

The two also have a different take on the post-apocalyptic world macho art cars seem built to inhabit. While Scranton wants cars that search and destroy, Edmundson and Kittelson seem to realize that, after the big bomb drops, the stuff of everyday life will be trash, not war. To that end, Edmundson and French artist Louis Perrin created Road Kill Resurrected, best described as the motorized aftermath of an explosion or wreck, and Kittelson collaborated with Tim Glover on the Garbage Monster, which resembles a moving dump. During Art Car Weekend 1992, Edmundson gave a lecture about prehistoric cars that roamed free until they were tamed by humans.

Another frequent winner is Mark Bradford, whose famous Carmadillo, a giant metal creature built over a truck and a van, is permanently on display in front of his house on Heights Boulevard. Among Bradford's many parade creations are the world's longest bicycle (95 feet); a combination hot tub, barbecue pit and hydraulic orange juicer built on an old lawn mower; and a mobile phone booth. To satisfy his extreme-sport craving, Bradford also builds snow-shovel racers, which look like ski-mounted metal torpedoes and can reach downhill speeds of 70 mph.

Some of the slickest macho cars have been created by a four-man team that includes Jeff Poss, a museum exhibit fabricator who built the Museum of Health & Medical Science's displays. Their sporty Inchworm, with a front end molded out of fiberglass, took three people to drive: one to steer, one to work the manual fuel pump and one to operate the clutch. No one needed to man the brakes, because the car didn't have any.

Poss says his team has traditionally imposed a "48-hour rule"-- their cars must be built entirely within the 48 hours prior to the parade. "You don't really sleep much, and you work as a team. When you're blowin' and goin' the whole time, you know something funky's going to happen."

Intentional or no, last-minute preparation is a hallmark of macho art cars. In fact, if one were to sort through the 240 entries for this year's art car parade, one could separate the macho cars from the high school projects and the "I just want to make people smile" entries simply by culling the ones that aren't built yet. They have elaborate sketches -- Jim Robertson, for example, has drawn a Star Wars-like space machine, all sleek angles and pointy laser sights -- and masturbatory descriptions -- "lots of stainless steel and diamond plate" reads Matt Slimmer's entry form.

But veteran art car parade organizer Jennifer McKay has learned not to count on tantalizing plans such as these. Macho, she says, is often a matter of potential rather than reality. "This is not a photo," she points out, looking at Robertson's sketch. "This is a drawing. Will it be realized? It's like a man with his cojones, strutting around. What will he do?"

The Saddam Sedan, at least, is making progress on its journey from potential to reality. It is another Saturday, two weeks before the parade. Scranton's crew is in full swing, as evidenced by their output in decibels, and by the fact that the special problem-solving pheromones men emit on weekend afternoons have pulled in a neighbor, who hovers around the I-beam frame, checking out the action.

Sam Duncan, who lives at the nearby Commerce Street Art Warehouse, tries to get the Caveman Car running. Fine-art mover John Holt, decked out in welding leathers, burns plate for a new suspension system for the Saddam Sedan, to be made from three-foot springs. After the plates are attached to either end, tension bolts will be suspended inside the springs and tightened down. The entire weight of the car body will rest on the two skinny weld beads joining the springs to the car's rear axle, but at 60,000 pounds per square inch, the boys aren't worried.

Lighting designer Stefan Stout pushes his goggles up on his forehead and identifies himself as the crew's "Boy," as in, "Boy, hold this," and "Boy, sand this." Stout considers himself a humble apprentice. "I just want to be on the winning team," he says, as composed as a star athlete with a mike jammed in his face.

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