To the Fruitmobile!

Jackie Harris made the art car that started it all

The Fruitmobile's body might be lagging, but her spirit is strong.

Right now, the old gal, a 1967 Ford station wagon, is sitting in Jackie Harris's garage, being tended to by one of her friends. He's giving it some sort of tune-up, while Harris, a former exotic dancer, looks on and admires the oranges, the apples, the entire cornucopia adorning her car.

"Through the years, as things have come off of it, I've had to redo it and put things back on it," says Harris. Her shirt and brow are dirty from working in the yard at what has become her compound, four lots in the Sunset Heights just south of the North Loop.

Jackie Harris keeps an eye on the past while driving 
headlong into the future.
Daniel Kramer
Jackie Harris keeps an eye on the past while driving headlong into the future.

The Fruitmobile is credited with starting the whole art-car phenomenon, even though it was neither Harris's nor the world's first mobile work of art. Roman chariots were decorated in all sorts of ways, and even Model A's were done up here and there. And Harris actually started with the small green Datsun of her friend Toni Silva.

"She wanted a little dragon on the door," says Harris, "and I thought, 'Yeah, if you painted on your cars, a lot of people would see the art. It wouldn't just be the usual art audience. ...I painted a dragon all over the whole car: the hood, the roof, the sides. She loved it."

To understand how someone would be happy about Harris destroying the resale value of her car, you have to get the vibe that permeated the University of Houston's Lawndale annex, where Harris and other artists ran wild in the mid-'80s.

"We were off-campus, and the school didn't know what we were doing or care what we were doing," says Harris. "They would just pay the bills and send us furniture and stuff." Giant puppets, weird performance pieces, live bands and a lot of partying were the norm, until, of course, school administrators dropped in and slowed the place down. "Suddenly they wanted to be involved," says Harris. "They decided we had to have cops there; they decided we had to have insurance...and that was the death of it."

Harris never graduated -- "I'm like one of those art students who went to art school for, like, seven or eight years and never got a degree," she says -- but while at Lawndale she began painting other cars: a panther on one, grasshoppers on another. Then the Orange Show, just getting on its feet, held a fund-raising auction. A Ford station wagon was donated and handed over to Harris, who covered it in fruit. "I always liked still-lifes," she says.

A group of people bought the Fruitmobile and donated it back to the Orange Show. It and 11 other art cars were displayed in 1986, and in one day more than a thousand people came by to check them out. By the time the Orange Show hooked up with the Houston International Festival in 1988, creating the first official Art Car Parade, our city -- already so in love with automobiles -- fell head over heels for art cars.

Each year hundreds of artists, both professional and folk, paraded their vehicles past iFest, offering up images of sunflowers, dragons, CDs, high heels, spiders, tanks, comic books, political figures, dogs, cats, rats, bubbles, bottles and, of course, fruit. The parade was easily the best part of a festival that seemed to get lamer and more profit-driven every year. Parade festivities expanded over a weekend of events, including the Main Street Drag and the raucous Art Car Ball. But its artists eventually grew tired of working with iFest.

"The artists had enough of being used and abused," says Harris. "We never, ever agreed with them charging money." The Art Car Parade broke away in 2003, and a few sponsorships later, it's now Everyones Art Car Parade, named after Ev1.net. And it's free to the public.

"Things start getting absorbed by the very system you're against to begin with, and it kind of ruins it and deadens it," says Harris, referring to both Lawndale and the parade. "The next thing you know, something that was so great at one time is awful, and it kind of fizzles and dies out. But we did something very unique and unusual when we took the parade back from the festival."

But there's still the matter of the Art Car Ball, which officially died in 2002, a victim of its own success. It originally was one hell of an annual party, held in a parking garage. But with the bohemian flair came a lot of technical issues, such as making sure there was enough power for the lights and clearance for the taller cars. The 2001 festivities were dwarfed in the Astrodome, so the Orange Show put it down the year after that, opting for an afternoon, post-parade celebration instead.

Enter the Artists Art Car Ball, an event officially unaffiliated with the Orange Show. Harris stepped up and helped out with the preparations the first year, although now other art-car artists handle the logistics. "My hope is that it will stay as good as it ever was," she says. Suddenly she adds, "There goes the Fruitmobile."

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