Arts in the Schools

Art Car Parade Puts Wheels In Motion For Creative Minds, Upcoming Artists

Large and in charge, this smoking hot whip is ready to roll.
Large and in charge, this smoking hot whip is ready to roll. Photo by Emily Jaschke
Big wheels keep on turning, and the 32nd annual Houston Art Car Parade, powered by The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, will keep on burning up the downtown streets Saturday. Unicycles riders, roller skaters, car drivers and operators for anything with a wheel will show off their artsy side for, arguably, the funkiest parade in the city.

"The Houston Art Car Parade has become one of the city's most beloved annual events, representing our inherent ingenuity and community spirit while providing a forum for artists of all walks of life to showcase their artistic creativity," said Parade Committee Co-Chairs and Orange Show Center for Visionary Art Board Members Don Mafrige, Jr. and Tracy Levit Larner in a released statement.

A Kids Creative Zone and The Lineup Party, a pre-event shindig, kicks off at 11 a.m. at Sam Houston Park and Sabine Street and Allen Parkway (respectively), followed by the VIPit Experience at noon at Hermann Square at City Hall (900 Smith Street) with food and beverages and reserved shaded seating. Then, the parade of wacky contraptions, mobile monsters and modified vehicles takes to the streets at 2 p.m.

Starting near Allen Parkway and Bagby Street, the parade will head east into downtown. It will continue along Dallas Street, take a left on Smith, left onto Walker and another left onto Bagby until it hits Sam Houston Park. Then, it will take a right onto Lamar and head outbound on Allen Parkway. Beverage booths, food trucks and restrooms will dot areas along the route.

What started off as a small gathering of like-minded artists has transformed into the largest celebration of its kind in the world, featuring more than 250 entries and attracting upwards of 300,000 spectators as the mobile masterpieces roll along the pavement. 

This year, celebrated Mexican-American radio personality and singer-songwriter Raúl Brindis will lead the show as Grand Marshal. He'll ride in one of last year's winning entries, "Quetzalcoatl," which is decorated as a tribute to the feathered serpent-diety of ancient Mesoamerican culture designed by Skyline Artists.

Artists from across the country will descend upon Houston during the weekend, presenting a wide array of entries. Just by sheer numbers, participation in the parade has reached beyond-impressive levels. They include the following:
  • 126 new, never-before-seen entries
  • 40 youth entries (the most ever)
  • 95 daily drivers (These are artists who drive their entries as regular means of transportation)
  • 34 entries coming from 100 miles or more outside of Houston
  • 5 nonprofit entries
  • 21 low-riders
Of particular note is the number of youth entries. An important aspect of the Houston Art Car Parade is the educational opportunity to recruit schools and youth groups to participate. This year, student groups ranging from elementary to college ages under the instruction of their art teachers and mentors will offer a dominant showing.

The Houston Press had the chance to catch up with some of the educators gearing up for the parade, ranging from first year entrants to those who have been with the parade for more than 30 years to see how schools are taking art out of the classroom and into the streets as part of this beloved H-town tradition.

After all, with mounting pressures to cut funding for the arts, the Houston Press wanted to take a look at how these teachers and students are getting more and more creative to create something out of nothing and to see how it interacts with the other segments of their lives.
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Students at St. Francis Episcopal School are howling with excitement to debut their first art car.
Photo by Matt Zeringue
St. Francis Episcopal School is a first time entrant. Thanks to a barter agreement between a teacher and his university friend, the class secured a Chevy Malibu and transformed it into a large wolf to symbolize their mascot. The project helps to fulfill the school's STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) courses, and through the process, the students learned how all the disciplines they study work in concert.

"We have the science teacher talking about electric cars and bio fuels. We used it to talk about internal combustion. We had our technology chair talk about making it high tech, our mathematics and engineering person talking about the car's ratios and its large tail, and a full staff of artists to work on costuming and the sound of the vehicle," said Justin Doran, fine arts chair for the school.

The school, which educates students from 2 years old to high school age, allowed some of their younger students to take part by painting and bedazzling the wheels. Further engaging its students, the school hosted a miniature art car parade on campus for all to enjoy their work plus the creations of a few other vehicle artists.

"What we really like for them - since our approach is interdisciplinary - is to see there is overlap between all of their courses. Not one discipline stands apart from any other. Art informs what they're learning in science, math and humanities," Doran said. "You’re seeing it all through an artistic lens. A lot of what happens in the world, the inter-connective tissue is the arts."

Another inaugural entry is Houston Community College. Ashley Hope, a professor of studio art and art history, uses cross-disciplinary teaching by entering her class in the parade. She has been wanting to enter for years, and her idea finally became a possibility when the college opened its West Houston Institute. The property features large space, technology and the tools needed to design the entry like 3-D printing, electronics, laser cutting, CNC machining and metalworking. Hope says the class helps bridge the many different types of studies the school offers.
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Is a circus? Is it a bike? Is it STEAM classes in action? You be the judge at this year's Houston Art Car Parade.
Photo by Ashley Hope
"I though the Art Car Parade was really obvious. The engineer designed the [parade entry], the machinist built it. It brings together academic pursuits with workforce pursuits. Any school looking to have a project for that, Art Car is a no-brainer," she said.

The college is entering bicycles this year with a ferris wheel and marionette attached to them. As the cyclists pedal, the ferris wheel turns and the marionette becomes animated. The overall experience between the class and the maker space, thus far, has impressed her superiors.

"I’ve seen appreciation for the arts grow out of the STEAM setting. We demonstrated not only that we make pretty things that glitter up the space, but we’re actually catalysts for innovation and completion in big projects," she said. "People were saying, 'We didn’t know you could do this with the speed you did and with little organization that we gave you.' In this setting, when STEM turned to STEAM, respect for the arts grew immeasurably."

Moving from the first timers to the well-tested, veteran parade participant Rebecca Bass is a retired teacher who has worked with several middle and high schools to enter each year. She now works with Heights High School where she runs an after-school art program to build cars. She has built 33 art cars in her lifetime and has been participating in the Houston Art Car Parade nearly since its inception.

Speaking of how she first got started involving the parade in her curriculum, she said, "I decided that my middle school kids from an under-served community needed to have an eye-opening experience and a community art experience. I asked my principal if I can do an art car, and he gave me a $100 budget and said 'Yes.' The first year, he let me take the doors off the building to drive a Volkswagen in the class."

Once those doors opened, they never shut. Her class won the Mayor's Cup that year, and she's been teaching how to build art cars in the class ever since.
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Rebecca Bass and her students at Heights High School with It's Only Rock n Roll But I like It. It's no skate through the park, though...these students put in hundreds of hours to produce a car each year.
Photo by Emily Jaschke
Through the years, Bass mentions that this experience has helped shape her pupils and show them avenues in life they might not have experienced or considered before.

"It's not the end product, it's the journey with the kids. I remember certain relationships I built with kids in the class and watching them grow. We talked about making art more palatable or recognizable to the general public, and have people recognize what you’re doing."

This year, Heights High School will be entering "Pride and Joy," a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, which includes nods to Texas culture as well as his music.

Among all three educators, they agree that participating in the Houston Art Car Parade enhances the student's art experience as well as provides a forum for student-led interaction rather than solely being instructed by a teacher or a text book. There's also the built-in benefit that they don't have to wait to see a return on their work - what they build this year, they will be able to display this year.

Growing from humble beginnings to a major attraction, the Houston Art Car Parade provides testament that no matter what our age, every Houstonian truly has the drive to create.

The 32nd Annual Houston Art Car Parade kicks off at 11 a.m. with free pre-parade festivities at Allen Parkway and Heiner Street and Sam Houston Park. The VIPit Experience starts at noon at Hermann Square at City Hall. The Houston Art Car Parade begins at 2 p.m. in downtown Houston. For more information, visit VIPit Experience tickets are $150. All other events on Saturday are free.

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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd