Ecstasy Is an Art Car

Philo Northrup and his wacky automotive tribe take a road trip to places in California you can't even imagine

You're driving south on Highway 101, hitting 70 mph as you zoom through San Jose. All of a sudden, up ahead, you see an odd-looking van-type thing, painted purple, with what appears to be a flying saucer dome on top.

You slow down to take a look and notice that the car in front of it is tricked out, too. It's a red VW Bus covered with plastic skulls, bullet casings, pictures of Jesus, and who knows what else. Then — hold on, applying brake pressure now — you realize there's actually a whole string of cars covered in junk: four, five, or more.

You pass a BMW with bobble-head dolls glued to the trunk. Then you're next to a little car covered in toys and a plastic pony dancing violently on the hood. Some hippie's driving it, and there's a kid in the back seat with a tousled, Partridge Family-gone-wild haircut.

Who are these people? Where are they going? Why would someone do that to his car?

Leading the pack is the most exquisite machine of all. It's an electric-blue Buick shaped like a horseshoe crab, its bottom built out with corrugated steel. On the roof are what look like dismembered animal heads. Plants grow out of the trunk, and pictures of dogs adorn all the windows.

A man with a devilish goatee and black straw hat is behind the wheel, his hatband printed with a flaming eyeball. He's Philo Northrup, the Moses of this peculiar tribe — a dashing, hawk-faced, Errol Flynn type, with his wife, Joanne, and two skinny mutts riding beside him. A digital animation producer by day, Northrup spends his free time cracking himself up by gluing random objects together to make absurdist sculptures. In one, titled A Basic Corn Piece, a Neanderthal man from a plastic model kit emerges from the center of a country kitchen-style corn-on-the-cob wall plaque.

But what Northrup really loves — what he says gives his life “fundamental meaning” — is turning cars into drivable art. The hobby started in 1983, when Northrup was in law school up in Eugene, Ore., driving a crappy Chevy Vega that didn't “feel fun.” He dressed it up in zebra stripes and mounted a pair of deer horns on the roof.

He didn't anticipate the reaction he'd get. People stared, pointed, smiled, laughed, and gave him the thumbs-up as he passed. For Northrup — who, like many artists, loves to be noticed, but at the same time is a little shy — this pleasant feedback was addictive.

“It makes people so happy,” he says. “Everywhere I go, people are stopping to look at my car, taking pictures of it, telling their friends about it later.”

He ditched the idea of becoming a lawyer and moved to Los Angeles to become an artist instead. But the arrogance and elitism of gallery owners and the art world didn't jibe with his down-home sensibilities.

Northrup, 42, is a private man. He doesn't enjoy selling himself and clams up a bit if you ask him personal questions, like why he and Joanne decided not to have children.

“The practical realities are daunting,” he says. “We're doing a lot of art, travel, investigating ….”

But get him going on his favorite subject — the crazily decorated vehicles known as Art Cars — and it's like you're talking to a born-again Christian or someone who just discovered hallucinogens. When he's working on Art Cars, Northrup says, his “rational brain turns off, like meditation. I feel fulfilled. Excited.”

The Vega died, but Northrup decorated his next car. And his next.

He taught himself how to attach ornaments that would survive at freeway speeds. He learned how to caulk drill holes so rain wouldn't leak in; how to bolt on sculptural elements rather than just gluing them; how to use lightweight materials to avoid weighing the car down. He discovered how to add flashing lights and neon wire, by juicing them from the car battery. He even figured out how to grow plants in planter boxes affixed to the car's body in strategic pockets where there wasn't as much wind.

“Art Cars are a process of self-discovery for me,” says Northrup, with a stonerlike laugh. The start-sticking-stuff-together mentality of Art Cars fit perfectly with his low-key approach to life and art.

His latest creation, “The Buick of Unconditional Love,” is a kind of Buick casserole: a 1986 Buick Park Avenue modified with fenders from a 1941 Buick and bullet-shaped front-end ornaments from a 1959 Buick. In a back window is a photograph of his dead dog, Fungus, with Northrup's heavy-lidded eyes and torso Photoshopped onto the hound. An urn of Gus' ashes sits on the shelf behind the back seat.

“I guess you could say the message of the car is, 'Are all men just dogs, and is that a bad thing?'” Northrup once said.

His caravan rolls on, headed for Fresno.

The automobile has long been a powerful symbol in American culture. For decades, ad execs have propagandized us that we are what we drive. In the 1950s, people began turning the message on its head, converting their wheels into mobile mirrors of their personalities. The American Graffiti era gave birth to hot rods and custom paint jobs, then to lowriders and muscle cars.

As gearhead culture took root, a smaller number of people began decorating their cars in a more homespun, artsy fashion. Some — especially owners of VW Buses in the '70s — painted murals on their cars. Others glued things to them. Unlike gearhead creations, however, decorated cars were not quite socially acceptable, slightly threatening and often associated with the druggie subculture.

Moreover, decorated-car people were so few and so spread out that they didn't know each other. That changed in 1984 when a Houston artist created the “Fruitmobile” for the Orange Show Foundation, a local arts center. The center held a parade to showcase the Fruitmobile and other decorated vehicles, and the event was wildly popular. The parade became an annual event, attracting as many as 250 vehicles and 300,000 spectators from across the country. [page]

In the late '80s, the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev., became another natural gathering place for people who decorated their cars. At Burning Man and the Houston parade, decorated-car people found each other and became friends, then started their own regional events.

In 1992, Philo Northrup was on his fourth Art Car when he met somebody even more obsessed than he was: Harrod Blank, son of Bay Area filmmaker Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, Gap-Toothed Women). The younger Blank, then living in Santa Cruz, had made a movie about Art Cars called Wild Wheels, which aired on PBS, and had created four decorated vehicles of his own. He drove his “Camera Van,” entirely covered with cameras, around the country taking pictures (with the mounted cameras) of people's reactions to the van. (He is currently finishing a film about the trip.)

Together, Northrup and Blank started the Bay Area Art Car Fest — the West Coast's answer to Houston's parade — and began leading Art Car fans on road trips across the United States. The trips always have a destination and a purpose — car camping in Oregon, or the Houston Art Car Parade, or Burning Man. But there are quirky detours along the way, to see funky little museums, local folk art, and other wayside oddities.

Blank says the caravans are Fellini-esque in their unpredictability. One year, they hit a May snowstorm in Arizona and had to wear socks on their hands because none of their car heaters worked. Another year Blank's Camera Van hit a deer at night outside a little Texas town. The deer was fine, but all the cameras were ripped off the front of the van — a day before it was supposed to appear in an exhibit in Houston. Blank substituted a hurriedly purchased deer head for the missing cameras the next day.

Breakdowns are common, and the other cars will wait hours by the side of the road for an ailing vehicle to catch up. Sometimes relief is nowhere in sight. Marilyn Dreampeace, a therapist from Santa Cruz, had to go to nine different mechanics in Gallup, N.M., until she found someone who claimed to know how to fix BMWs. When he confused her Beemer with a Corvair, she decided to limp on to Albuquerque instead.

Northrup's caravan, now cruising down the 101, left this morning from his San Jose home and will end in four days at the Salton Sea, a weirdly beautiful salt lake about 130 miles east of San Diego. Its primary objective is the opening of an Art Car exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, curated by Harrod Blank. But that's only part of the fun. On their pilgrimage deep into the Southern California desert, the Art Car riders will stage an impromptu punk rock concert, drink Chocolate Martinis, nearly get shot in Watts, marvel at concrete dinosaurs and ancient fish bones, and help a septuagenarian Jesus freak get closer to God.

Northrup's crew pulls off the highway into the flat, urban sprawl of Fresno. They spot a cracked wooden sign that reads “The Forestiere Underground Gardens” — the first stop on the tour.

There are about 15 people with Northrup, most in their late 30s or early 40s, dressed with zany little touches: Jan Elftmann's got on her grandmother's silver cat-eye glasses, Marilyn Dreampeace is dressed head to toe in rainbow tie-dye.

They are greeted by a rosy-cheeked, thirtysomething man in a knit cap who steps down from a ladder, where he's been pruning hedges. He introduces himself as Andre Forestiere, a relative of the man who built the very peculiar piece of architecture the Art Car crowd is about to explore.

Forestiere's eccentric great-uncle was a Sicilian immigrant named Baldesare Forestiere who bought a plot of land in Fresno and moved there in 1905. But he soon discovered his land couldn't be farmed since it was laced with naturally occurring cement called hardpan.

While his brother farmed a second plot to make the family's living, Baldesare — weirdly — began tunneling into his land, as part of a grand plan to build an underground house and orchard.

He dug and drilled for the next 40 years, producing a 100,000-square-foot labyrinth, complete with subterranean orange, fig, kumquat, and grapefruit trees, and a comfortable house. Along the way he contracted a fatal case of pneumonia, presumably exacerbated by inhaling so much dust.

The Art Car enthusiasts follow Forestiere through an arbor and down into a dirt-walled tunnel, where the temperature plunges about 20 degrees. The group stops in a small chamber with an orange tree growing implausibly in the center. Light comes from a porthole in the ceiling.

That first summer in Fresno was pretty damn hot, says Forestiere, with temperatures climbing into the 100s. Baldesare spent a lot of time loafing in his chilly underground cavern.

“Wood houses hold and radiate heat,” says Forestiere. “So his earthen cellar was” — and here he lowers his voice dramatically — “far superior.”

That's where inspiration struck Baldesare. If the cellar was so great, why not build the entire house underground?

As the group winds through the tunnels, Forestiere speaks in lofty tones about the influence on Baldesare of his “primal” memories of Mediterranean architecture. It's clear that his urbane great-nephew, who ditched a career as a civil engineer to run the family's curious legacy, is on a mission to elevate the Forestiere Underground Gardens from somewhat creepy roadside attraction to High Art.

“Last year, they held a national conference on adobe here,” he says proudly. The mind reels with images of scholars in Navajo jewelry, mingling in the tunnels while nibbling goat cheese crostini. [page]

Forestiere's chic vision for the property notwithstanding, Baldesare was obviously of a simpler bent. The caravaners enter the guts of the Gardens, where Baldesare actually lived. His bed — a simple metal frame — is in a tiny earthen nook. Outside is a now-dry pond where he used to keep live fish before eating them, like in a Chinese restaurant.

Things get even stranger in the next room, which Forestiere explains was built as an “indoor aquarium.” Overhead is a skylight once covered by six inches of water. The original idea was that one could sit in the room below and watch the fish swim in the pond above.

“But you couldn't really see into the pond,” admits Forestiere, “because there was so much algae in it. And there weren't really any fish in there; there were mostly frogs.” The seal wasn't so great either. The walls of the room below were totally covered in mold.

“It took Fresno a long time to appreciate the Gardens,” says Forestiere. “They called our family “The Mole People.'”

There's a slightly awkward silence. Something in Forestiere's tone suggests that perhaps this bizarre sideshow legacy doesn't exactly jell with his artistic vision.

Philo Northrup considers it all. He thinks it's heartbreaking. It's always like that, isn't it? The craziest people doing the coolest stuff are usually outcasts in their own communities. Unless you're in a place like the Bay Area, eccentric people are about as popular as a leper with a clingy personality. “How cold people are,” Northrup thinks.

“Why can't they go just 10 miles an hour faster?” Marino Pesce rants, clutching the steering wheel of “Toy Machine” as the caravan struggles up the Grapevine on Interstate 5.

The 41-year-old sometime carpenter is slumped in his Ford Taurus, which is literally encrusted with toys: Batman figurines, Happy Meal gewgaws, Fisher-Price barnyard animals. His pug dog, Baby, squirms in his lap. Pesce looks like Jesus by way of Venice Beach: He has a beard, long kinky hair, frayed jeans, and a flannel shirt so old that little cotton pills hang all over it. His thin, tan face is accentuated by a pair of alert, auburn-colored eyes.

In front of Toy Machine, the red VW Bus, “Cinnabar Charm,” is coughing its way up the Grapevine, looking like it might throw a rod any minute now.

“Aaargh,” growls Pesce. He used to drive a cab, and he likes to pound 7-Eleven coffee all day and go, go, go. Toy Machine can do 80 mph, thank God, unlike these clunkers. Not that it's a precision machine — Pesce has to hike himself up in his seat a bit going up and down hills in order to see over the doll heads glued to the hood.

“You get used to it,” he says. “What really messes with me is when somebody pulls something off, and it changes the shape of the field of vision I've gotten used to.”

Riding Miss Daisy-style in the back seat is Pesce's son, King, who ignores his dad's histrionics. The kid concentrates instead on his favorite comic book series — Archie. He's a cherubic 9-year-old with bowl-cut hair that looks like it's been dyed with Hawaiian Punch, and he wears a jean jacket stitched with rock band and skateboard patches. The Clash gets a lot of space on the jacket.

Pesce divorced his wife when King was a baby, and father and son live in a one-bedroom apartment in the Inner Mission. Pesce sleeps on a turquoise vinyl couch in the living room.

He's a fanatically devoted parent. He makes homemade pizza for dinner, sews quilts out of King's old footie-pajamas, and volunteers at his son's school several days a week. He even draws comic books, featuring King as the hero. On the fingers of his right hand is tattooed K-I-N-G, one letter per finger.

Pesce sometimes expresses affection in unusual ways. When his beloved German shepherd, Eddy, died two years ago, for example, he tried to have a taxidermist preserve one of the dog's lovely silky ears.

The taxidermist said it was illegal to preserve domestic animals, so Pesce did it himself. First he cut off Eddy's ear, then sliced the membrane and turned it inside out. He salted the flesh, letting it dry for a few days until it was leathery. The result was a sort of dog-ear purse. Pesce sometimes sleeps with it against his cheek, the way he used to when the ear was attached to Eddy.

Toy Machine was a joint project between Pesce and King's first-grade class at the Creative Arts Charter School in the Western Addition. Pesce had seen Harrod Blank's Art Car movie and invited King's classmates to cover his Taurus with toys he'd scrounged at junkyards. Besides being Pesce and King's primary mode of transportation, Toy Machine is also the tour vehicle for their band, Boogereater.

Yes, their band.

Pesce and King are the sole members — King on drums, his dad on guitar and vocals. The band covers songs by the likes of the Clash, the Buzzcocks, T. Rex, and David Bowie. Its name came about when Pesce and King were on their way to their first gig at a local motorcycle shop two years ago. Pesce turned around to ask King what the band should be called, and saw his son picking and consuming a booger.

Last summer, Pesce and King packed amps, drums, and guitar into Toy Machine and went on tour. They played on the street in Seattle, Montana, Wisconsin — all the way to King's grandma's house in Baltimore. The tour went great — they powered their amps with the car battery and slept in the car. And thanks to Pesce's relentless hawking of their home-silk-screened Boogereater T-shirts, they nearly broke even.

During their Seattle show, Pesce hailed his son's talents before the few curious onlookers who typically made up a Boogereater audience. “Eight years old, people!” he shouted. “Only 8 years old. Amazing, huh?” [page]

And King, trying to outham his dad, stepped up to the mike and said, “Forty years old, people! Forty years old. Amazing, huh?”

King doesn't need to be reminded by Pesce that when there are cute girls in the vicinity of Boogereater shows, his dad is 32. Got that? 32.

“I know, I know,” says King. “But it really is amazing! It's hard to play guitar when you're that old! Your fingers get all achy!”

Despite its promotional efforts, Boogereater is usually upstaged by its touring vehicle and dog. At rest stops, everybody from small children to middle-aged men makes for Toy Machine like yellow jackets to a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. The old toys on the car are irresistible, as is Baby, whose cuteness often turns women to pudding and men to simpering fools.

“It's all for sale,” Pesce likes to say. “The car's $3,000, the dog's $30,000.”

“Hey, why don't you do some math homework?” he abruptly asks King, throwing a look toward the back seat where his son is happily reading his Archie comic.

“Nooooo,” whines King. He adores Archie because “their lives are so normal, and the jokes are so old-fashioned.” What's left to impress a kid who's toured the United States with his own punk rock band by the age of 9? The allure of white-bread suburban squareness. Pure, unadulterated normalcy. All the things that his life's not.

“Lost in Riverdale,” taunts Pesce, referring to the fictional town in Archie. “Again.”

The Art Cars pull off in Simi Valley, the conservative L.A. suburb notorious for producing the jury that acquitted the cops in the first Rodney King beating trial. They park in front of a tumbledown lot bordered by the Ashley Manor retirement community on one side and a string of prefab bungalows on the other. They've arrived at the strange folk art creation known as Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village. From the sidewalk, it just looks like rubble. But as Daniel Paul will tell you, it's really Art.

A spiky-haired, L.A.-hipster-looking guy, Paul emerges from a trailer and greets Northrup and the rest of the crew like long-lost friends. An art historian whose entire being seems focused on obscure folk art sites created by American eccentrics, Paul practically passed out from joy the first time Northrup stopped at Prisbrey's in 1996. These were his people! The Art Car folks ended up kidnapping him and taking him all the way to Houston with them.

He shows them around the weedy lot, pointing out the various structures fashioned from colored bottles and concrete. The bottles' round bottoms are flush with the mortar so that the buildings — what's left of them — have a goofy, polka-dotted surface.

Grandma Prisbrey built Bottle Village while raising her seven children in the 1950s and '60s. For a quarter, she'd give you a tour of the property that ended with her playing bawdy songs on the piano inside the “meditation room.” Tragically, six of her children died. She created a room covered in shells for one of her sons as he lay dying of cancer.

Marino Pesce regards Paul as “a superhero's alter ego.” For the past nine years, he's fought to preserve Grandma Prisbrey's from total neglect and collapse — an uphill battle.

In 1994, the bottle houses were devastated by the Northridge earthquake. Though Bottle Village is a revered destination for Art Car types (it's been on a few rock album covers, too), it has few fans in Simi Valley. The local Republican congressman blocked a federal restoration grant of nearly $500,000 in 1997. Since then, the foundation that protects Bottle Village (and in which Paul is a central figure) has squeaked by on smaller grants, struggling to keep the crumbling Village from being closed.

Concrete pathways surround the buildings, decorated with mosaics made from 1950s household items — hangers, broken Fiestaware, rubber sandals, even a recipe for French salad dressing.

Pesce stands transfixed by a macabre outcropping of dusty rubber doll heads, jammed onto 3-foot-long pikes and planted in a circle of car headlights.

“If you donate $5 to save Bottle Village, you get to have one square foot named after you,” Paul tells the caravaners.

King picks out a section of walkway with a license plate frame embedded in it that reads “Van Nuys, Bones Hamilton.” In the center of the frame is a toy plastic gun. His dad buys the square foot in the name of Boogereater.

The Art Cars amble down Wilshire Boulevard, headed for the Petersen Automotive Museum, a sort of high-tech shrine to L.A.'s car culture. Their number has swelled to about 30 as local enthusiasts have joined Northrup's core group. They putter into the museum's squeaky-clean parking garage like an exotic Mexican moth invasion. A new driver called Rocket Bob — an aging Wild Bill Hickok-looking character — pulls up in a beige van sporting an Uncle Fester bust ripped from atop a Reno slot machine. Another newcomer, a dreadlocked man in a beer-can hat, rolls up in a blue van with a massive fly on the roof.

The cars wend their way up to the museum's roof and park in a clump just outside the doors.

Inside the Petersen's glitzy, Niketown-esque display environments are the most incredible cars in the world. There's a 1939 Bugatti 57C Roadster, built for the Shah of Iran and now worth $1 million. It looks like a crouching black panther. There's a stately, beige and brown 1932 Packard Phaeton once owned by Jean Harlow. The museum even has ZZ Top's custom 1949 CadZZilla, with an eggplant-colored metallic paint job so rich and lustrous you almost want to sink a spoon into it.

They probably have to pay the janitors overtime to wipe up all the car-freak drool from the floor. [page]

Surrounded by these elegant, expensive rigs on the third floor sit a dozen or so Art Cars. There's Howard Davis' red giant-telephone car. And David Best's “Nevada Car,” covered in gorgeous detritus from bleached bones to betting chips. Harrod Blank's own Camera Van is there, along with eternal Hollywood wannabe Dennis Woodruff's vehicular calling card, titled “Make My Movie.”

After failing to be cast in a film, aspiring actor Woodruff created a life-size replica of himself and mounted it on the hood of his Dodge Colt. He also festooned the car with head shots and written pleas to film execs. (Woodruff is a bit of an embarrassment to the Art Car community, such as it is, since he lacks some basic social skills, not to mention any semblance of self-restraint. As photographers snap him in front of his vehicle, he pulls his pants down and moons them.)

Though they are arguably the best of the genre — and certainly the most imaginative — the Art Cars look as out of place at the Petersen as a bunch of hippies crashing a cotillion ball.

Tall, skinny, cowboy-hatted Harrod Blank is meeting and greeting people with a distinctly uncomfortable look on his face. Though he spent years trying to convince the Petersen to hold this show, now that it's under way he looks as if he should be wearing a lapel button that says “I'd rather be driving.” When someone approaches him, he fends him off with a “Yeah, thanks, likewise” before darting off “to go see about something.”

The guests mill about, oohing and aahing. Fit suburban-looking dads, tanned moms, and freckle-faced little boys gush over the cars. Due to some unfortunate catering inspiration, mashed potatoes are being served in martini glasses, and a banquet table offers glass bowls full of toppings: mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, chives, olives. The mood is festive. But the appreciative comments seem to apply as much to the chocolate bread pudding — “Absolutely divine!” — as to the rolling stock.

Charlie Russell has donned a kind of sci-fi Viking ensemble for the evening, to go with his red VW Bus, Cinnabar Charm. A bear of a man with a trim beard and crew cut, he wears a black velvet robe, a child's crash helmet strung with neon wire, and a black leather dog collar studded with red sequins. He's carrying a staff with a leering plastic skull on top.

Russell, 38, is a professional gambler and software engineer who has been sleeping in Cinnabar Charm for the past year because, he says, he hates wasteful consumerism and likes the notion of “mobile living spaces.” He parks his Bus either outside the San Jose casino where he works as a house player, or at his other job at Innovative Robotics in Santa Clara.

Cinnabar Charm was born after Russell attended a party at Philo Northrup's house in 2001. He was so impressed by the Art Car folks' creative talents (as well as their hell-raising abilities) that he felt he had to upgrade his VW to fit in.

First came a few strands of chili pepper lights. Then a blender and some bottles of liquor. Before he knew it, the inside of the Bus looked like a stir-crazy witch doctor had been locked inside for a month with nothing but peyote and a few Big Brother & the Holding Company tapes.

The console, walls, and ceiling are covered with psychedelic fetishes: holograms of Jesus, Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons, rodent skulls, Mardi Gras beads, nudie playing cards, and empty canisters that “may or may not have contained nitrous, that may or may not have been used recreationally.”

The Bus was transformed into an after-work watering hole that conveniently could be parked right outside the office.

After 9/11, decorations spread to the outside of the Bus as well. And Russell had a transformative erotic experience with a cocktail called a Chocolate Martini. He refuses to supply details, since the whole episode was “a little graphic.” In any event, the Chocolate Martini became the house drink of Cinnabar Charm.

“Chocolate Martinis have led to several actual orgies,” brags Russell. “In or around Cinnabar Charm.”

Russell soon retires to his mobile castle after checking out the exhibit, and all the people “who stick money up the Petersen's butt.” He flips a switch that lights up the crazed-looking tiki skulls on the Bus' body, slides open the door so people can look inside, ignites a stick of incense, and puts some Leonard Cohen on the stereo. No orgy-inducing martinis are being mixed — yet — but Cinnabar Charm is still the coolest party in town. Or at least on the Petersen premises.

Outside, Boogereater sets up.

“You're not going to punk out on me again like you did when we went to see the Phenomenauts, are you?” teases Marino Pesce.

“I was tired!” protests King.

The two had recently gone to see the intergalactic rockabilly band at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. The Phenomenauts realized they had forgotten a crucial plug, and begged Boogereater to warm up the crowd with a few songs while they retrieved it. It was nearly 11 p.m., and King was nodding off.

“King was all, 'No, no, Dad, please don't make me play!'” recalls Pesce.

“I was tired!” King shrieks again, desperate to be understood and forgiven.

“Can you believe it? Opportunity knocking at our door! There must've been over 20 people there!” Pesce shakes his head.

With a smooth, 1-2-3-4 nod from Pesce, Boogereater launches into a sped-up version of “Psycho Killer,” the old Talking Heads standard. King keeps up a fast, hard-driving beat on his drum kit, his pinkish-red locks swinging in front of his eyes. His dad's voice is a gruff, punk rock monotone. They're actually good. [page]

Partyers drift over to Cinnabar Charm, which comfortably holds only about six people. “Unless they're on Ecstasy,” Russell notes. “Then it'll fit 12.”

Daniel Paul, the folk art superhero from Bottle Village, arrives in a white western-cut suit and art deco tie, thrilled to be in close proximity to so many self-taught artists. His eyes scan the inside of Russell's van, resting on an image of Jesus.

“You know,” he says breathlessly. “At Knott's Berry Farm, there's this chapel that barely anybody knows about that was built in the 1940s with a great holographic image of Jesus smiling, with blond hair. It's part 3-D, part glow in the dark, with this weird narration over it, talking about how Jesus really looked and stuff.”

When he hears that the Art Car group is headed toward Joshua Tree National Park the following afternoon, he gets even more excited.

“There's this amazing artist I discovered who moved out there named Spaceship Kenny,” says Paul. “He created this entire room out of duct tape, with rubber bands on the floors, and bags of fluid hanging from the ceilings. And he plays the keyboard, and he's made up an entire, 2,600-word language all based on different ways of saying the word 'goo.'”


“Yeah, 'goo.' And he melts down his own hair and stuff in jars in his kitchen, to make glazes for pottery. Pee, whatever. He just throws it on.”

“Pee would make an interesting glaze,” muses Susan Hughes, an Art Car artist propped against Russell's dog.

“There could be so many people like him that we don't even know about. You know?” says Paul, his voice nearly cracking with passion. “It just makes you wonder how much is out there.”

In a booth at Canter's, the historic L.A. deli on Fairfax, Howard Davis is discussing the hazards of piloting his Art Car, a gigantic replica of an old push-button phone perched atop a VW Beetle chassis.

Davis is the ultimate phone phreak. His car horn rings like a phone. The phone number of his company — he sells phones — is emblazoned across the vehicle's front. Naturally, there's a phone in the car. But you have to peer around the big push buttons on the car's hood, and that makes it somewhat ungainly to drive.

“Everybody likes it in our neighborhood, and wants to go for a ride, except for my daughter,” says Davis, 44, who lives in Sharon, Mass. “She thinks I'm an asshole. She won't even make eye contact with me.”

The cleft-chinned, preppy suburbanite, in wire-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, is breakfasting with about a dozen other Art Car people on the morning after the Petersen show. Half of them are irritably calling for the waitress to refill their coffee cups.

“I'm building another one that can go on the freeway,” says Davis in a thick Boston accent. “But I feel like I sold out because I am keeping the body of the car, and just putting a big phone headset on the roof.”

Davis began collecting phones when he was 8 and now has more than 4,000. He's got six pay phones and a complete switchboard, too. When he was 17, the phone company rejected his job application, prompting him to start his own phone-selling business.

“It's definitely a sickness,” he tells his Art Car colleagues in the booth. “Just as bad as gambling or alcoholism.”

Why phones? someone asks.

“This is going to sound a little profound,” he warns. “But I think it's amazing to have an object on your desk that can connect you with anybody anywhere in the world.”

Before he heard anything about Art Cars, or knew anybody who had one, Davis built his telephone car. Why not? Nearly everything else in his life already had a phone on it — right down to his ties and cuff links.

His wife made him a superhero outfit to wear in the car, complete with red cape, white turtleneck with a red “T” on the front made of phone receiver shapes, dial-face belt buckle, and touch-pad shoe ornaments. His character? Teleman, of course.

Harrod Blank discovered Davis and his phone car awhile back, but until Canter's, Davis had never hung out with other Art Car folk. He is pleasantly surprised. Such nice people!

“I joined a few phone enthusiast groups, but I found them to be overzealous,” says Davis. “Really, I found them to be a bit off the wall.”

Later that day, the caravaners take off for their next folk art attraction: Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's mosaic concrete-and-rebar masterpiece in South Los Angeles.

Meantime, the group has been joined by Matt Slimmer and Annie Tilley of Houston, who arrive with “Toybota” — a turquoise speedboat on a Toyota chassis. In the boat's stern is a small pond with live goldfish in it. Slimmer made the contraption for Tilley.

The other caravan people gigglingly call them “the boat people.” They don't socialize with the rest of the Art Car folks and have trouble keeping up with the itinerary.

Tilley, a Baywatch ringer with long, tan legs, tiny denim shorts, and pouty lips that hint of surgical augmentation, is not a good driver, and riding in Toybota on the freeway is a harrowing experience. The wind whips passengers' faces and hair savagely, and Toybota's sides are so low that you worry about falling out even during routine turns.

“Nice boat!” another driver shouts, and the friendly, flirty Texan slows down to chat, taking her eyes off the road. Her passengers' fingers close around the sides of the boat in a death grip. This happens approximately every 30 seconds.

The strip malls and chain restaurants of midtown L.A. give way to mom-and-pop soul food restaurants and barbershops as the cars exit the freeway and careen into Watts. Rodia's filigreed Towers prick the sky in the distance above the neighborhood's cheaply made railroad houses. [page]

Tilley turns down a narrow street, and a black woman wearing a bandanna over her head darts from one of the houses toward Toybota, screaming excitedly. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Look at that! It's a boat!”

Tilley hits the brakes, giggling, and the woman pitches herself onto the foredeck.

“Momma, Momma, look at me!” the hysterical woman yells. She grabs a captain's wheel attached to the deck. “I'm steering the boat!”

Tilley throws the woman a life preserver, but it looks like she's the one who may need it. Behind her, the agitated driver of a black Mercedes begins to honk.

The woman on the roof cackles and rolls around in what appears to be a drug-induced frenzy, yelling for her momma, who has still not emerged. The beep-beep from the Mercedes turns into a continuous blare.

“What the fuck? Move that fucking boat!” the driver yells.

One of the boat's passengers jumps out and attempts to coax the woman down. “I'm going to fucking kill you,” warns the Mercedes driver.

Just as he unbuckles his seat belt to get out, the crazed woman hops off Toybota, and Tilley hits the gas.

For once, she doesn't stop to chat.

King cranes his head to look at the giant t-rex that rears up on a patch of grass next to the freeway on the way to Palm Springs. Then he peers at the brontosaurus next to it. These big dinosaurs were the result of one man's quest to, well, build dinosaurs. According to a little museum in the brontosaurus' belly, the now-deceased Claude Bell built the concrete beasts with his own money for the purpose of delighting children.

“Did they gut them?” asks King, half seriously.

The voyagers are breakfasting at a nearby cafe featuring a big sign that reads “EAT.” But King, his dad, and Toy Machine park away from the rest of the cars, next to the dinosaurs.

A sheriff's car swoops into the parking lot and beelines for the shady-looking guy whose Taurus looks like it was detailed by heroin junkies. Up to something illegal back there, no doubt.

Getting braced by cops is not high on Marino Pesce's list of favorite road-trip activities, especially before he gets his morning coffee. He gives the deputy a big wave nonetheless.

“Hel-LO, officer!” he booms, stepping away from Toy Machine.

“Hi!” beams King, standing next to his dad. Pesce tousles his hair.

“This your son?”

“Yes,” says Pesce. “This is my son, King. And this,” he nods at the prancing pug, “is Baby.”

“Whatcha doing this morning?” asks the deputy.

“Oh, we're part of this caravan of Art Cars. Did you see the others up there? We went to see an exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, and now we're visiting folk art environments around California. What do you think of the cars? Pretty cool, huh?”

“Sure, sure, very creative,” says the deputy, smiling.

“We got some toys in the back and some glue if you want to start working,” says Pesce.

“Dad, you always say that,” says King.

“No, that's all right,” the deputy replies.

“We were just saying back there that Art Cars must be good for traffic, right? Because people slow down to look at them!” says Pesce.

Charmed now, the deputy laughs with him, and agrees that yeah, they probably are good for traffic.

The Art Cars reach the Salton Sea at twilight. Following Northrup, they turn off on a rutted, hilly dirt road. Besides the occasional date palm or Joshua tree, the white-on-white landscape stretches to the horizon unbroken. The ground is bleached with salt, and the sky is thick with a dense white haze.

The road goes over a wash and ends in a parking area well worn with tire tracks. Over a rise of gray earth, you can see sunlight flickering on the water, but you can't hear any surf. The air, too, is absolutely still.

This is Bombay Beach. But it could just as easily be named White Trash Pompeii.

The scene is devastatingly lonely. It looks like a burbling, sandy muck rolled in, engulfing a survivalist settlement before the residents had time to high-tail it out. Mobile homes, trailers, and vintage '70s Airstream campers are marooned in what appears to be quicksand. The beams of an abandoned shack shoot out of the mire at a crazy tilt, their ends honed to jagged points by wind and sand.

The smell of the air is brackish, with a low note of sulfur.

Susan Hughes calls the group over to a stranded La-Z-Boy recliner. It appears to have barely survived a nuclear attack. The brown vinyl has almost all flaked off, and its oozing curdled stuffing resembles yellow birthday cake left out in a rainstorm. Hughes sits down and King tumbles into her lap, begging to have his picture taken.

“You egomaniacal little freak!” exclaims his father.

Baby bolts into the gooey center of the bog, dirtying his paws. The group stares, mesmerized by the muck; King launches a few mud balls toward the center. They hit the soft surface, throwing up clumps of salt that look like filthy snow.

Northrup calls the group over to the lakeshore. They crunch down the steep bank on white, calcium-rich sand.

“Look down!” he shouts. “You're walking on dead fish parts!”

Sure enough, the closer to the shore, the bigger the pieces of sand get until they become recognizably Paleolithic — round vertebrae, spiky long bones.

“I feel like I'm in an H.P. Lovecraft story!” says Charlie Russell.

There's an atmosphere of giddiness among the group that hasn't been there before. You get the sense that, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, after tasting several days' worth of singularly odd attractions, the Art Car folks have finally found one freaky enough to feel just right. [page]

But ahead lies Salvation Mountain. And if they expect to make it before nightfall, they've got to get moving.

Leonard Knight came to the desert 18 years ago to launch a hot air balloon he'd made on a borrowed sewing machine.

It was part of his personal advertising campaign for the Almighty, and the side of the balloon bore the message “God Is Love” in large letters. Knight chose as his launch pad a former military training center near the Salton Sea called the Slabs.

The balloon never flew, but that didn't stop Knight. He settled down at the Slabs and painted a 10-story, concrete-covered sand pile with bright colors and Bible messages. He called it Salvation Mountain.

Knight and the Art Car people are old friends, and he lets them camp at Salvation Mountain. Harrod Blank made Knight's acquaintance years ago, since the 72-year-old boasts two decorated trucks — one of which he sleeps in — of his own. Like his mountain, they are drenched in Bible messages and bright, childlike designs.

On the last day of their caravan, the Art Car folks wake up next to the garishly painted sand mound. Atop it, in lettering that might have been done with red lipstick, is the word “God.” Beneath that are waterfalls, birds, and flowers painted in colors as artificially bright as a bowl of Skittles. In raised lettering on top of these designs the message continues: “Is Love.”

Charlie Russell and Rocket Bob climb to the top and slap paint on a blue and white waterfall. They like helping Knight, who insists on keeping his Godly heap freshly painted at all times for maximum visibility. Russell's loud voice punctures the stillness of the morning.

“When Leonard dies, what's going to happen to this?” he asks rhetorically. “It's going to all be fenced off, and you're going to have to pay money to get in, and it's going to suck.”

Knight — a wiry little man with big blue eyes, a baseball hat, and trousers hitched up with a leather belt — loves visitors. He rises in the morning, works on the mound until early afternoon, and spends the rest of the day showing off his creation.

“I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm having fun doing it!” he quips, smiling cheerfully.

Knight hasn't always been such an enthusiastic Christian. “I used to hate God,” he says. Then one day, atop a different mountain, he began to weep and repeat the words, “Jesus, I'm a sinner, please come into my heart.” Ever since, he says, he has felt God's joy and wants to share it with everybody.

“But there will be no churches on Salvation Mountain,” says Knight. “You gotta love God head-on. When you wake up in the morning, put your face right up into God.” To demonstrate, he juts his face skyward like a gosling at feeding time.

The caravan is finished. Already Toy Machine has taken off for the Bay Area, to get King back to school. Leaning against his Buick, Northrup is in a peaceful, contemplative mood. He smiles as his mutt, Huckleberry, rolls happily in the dust.

“We're considered old-fashioned, you know,” says Northrup, referring to Art Car aficionados. “I mean, in the art world, the cutting-edge stuff is video, conceptual art, installation. We actually make stuff. We're old-fashioned assemblagists.”

Nearby, Knight welcomes some elderly visitors in an RV.

“God just kinda zapped him,” says Northrup appreciatively, watching the older man. Normally, Northrup is allergic to Jesus talk. He doesn't believe in organized religion or dogma.

“But Leonard says, “There will be no preaching on Salvation Mountain,'” explains Northrup. “It's just about feeling the beauty, the color, the intensity of the thing.”

He looks at Knight's latest addition: an igloo made of stacked hay bales. A backhoe, painted with Bible messages, rests beside it.

“This is so blatantly therapeutic for him,” says Northrup with a sigh. “It'll probably keep him alive for a long time.”

What keeps Northrup coming back year after year to Salvation Mountain has as much to do with Knight as with the whimsical beauty of his holy lump. When Knight talks about Jesus, Northrup has come to realize, he's really talking about that mystical feeling all artists seek — what Northrup feels when he works on his Art Cars. Knight calls it “experiencing God,” but an artist might call it inspiration, or creative fire, or even ecstasy. It's that state of floating out of your rational brain and into somewhere more exciting.

Knight found his calling by endlessly painting, repainting, and expanding Salvation Mountain, and sharing it with visitors. Most people probably would see that as simply bizarre. But not everybody soups up his Chevy Vega with zebra stripes and deer horns, either. Northrup did, and found his calling, too.

“Leonard Knight has found what all artists are looking for,” says Northrup. “He's found self-love.”

Seeing Northrup so relaxed and happy in this desert, beside a polluted lake and a sand mound painted with Jesus slogans, you might think he's discovered his Nirvana — an environment in which the weird not only survives but flourishes.

But that's not quite it. As he talks, two frail old men, one with aluminum crutches clamped below his elbows, totter over to Northrup's Buick of Unconditional Love. Northrup moves away and observes them. One man snaps a picture of the other in front of the wild-looking machine, and then they trade places.

Northrup smiles.

Nope, you realize; Northrup didn't find Nirvana here. He drove it here.

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