SAN FRANCISCO — Harrod Blank likes to stop his van in front of a bus stop, click on his small public-address system, and say, "OK, everybody, say 'cheese.' "
Jaws drop. Mothers clutch small children. Grown men groan and smile. Teens say, "Cooooool."
Mr. Blank's 1972 Dodge van is covered with cameras, 1,705 of them, glued carefully in rows and designs on the van's sides, back, and front. To sidewalk crowds from California to New York, this apparition of van-dalized cameras is at first seen as the work of some wacko with too much time on his hands. Then people warm to it.
Mr. Blank's enhanced van, and hundreds of other cars decorated with unlikely objects or painted with murals or swirls by their owners, are an American phenomenon: the Art Car movement.
"I think the art cars are the quintessential public art of our time," says John Beardsly, an art curator and writer in Washington, D.C. "The artists meet their audience on the street. No intermediary, no dealer, no curator. It's very democratic."
Something is being touched by the art- car artists that springs from the ancient idea of adornment and individual expression, but is communicated through today's icon - the automobile.
"I see art cars as sort of guerrilla theater," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. "You build one, and literally thousands more people will see your work than if it was in the best of galleries for 30 days."
The Art Car movement is no flash in the oil pan. Last spring, some 250,000 people lined the streets of Houston to see the 10th annual "Roadside Attractions" Art Car parade. "We had to limit the parade to 200 cars," says Jennifer McKay, the parade coordinator, "because of the overwhelming logistics of handling the cars. But we could have many more." In Minneapolis, a smaller version, "Wheels as Art," attracted 50 cars last summer.
While Blank's camera van actually takes photos of the people who stop, stare, and are amazed at the startling van, other art cars across the nation are covered with buttons, synchronized light bulbs, or Day-Glo yo-yos. They are splashed with plastic fruit, planted with real, growing grass, "tupped" with Tupperware, covered with beads, jewelry, and mirrors, or shaped like a shark.
'I'm not sure I know what it is'
Blank, the son of documentary filmmaker Les Blank, also made a movie. He shot "Wild Wheels," about art cars and their owners, when he drove his first art car across America. It was a Volkswagen festooned with toys, a TV set, and other junk symbolizing American culture.
"As I was driving around, the reactions of people were amazing," Blank says, "and when I took their picture, they would react to the camera and not the car. Then I had a dream about a van covered with cameras," he says, "and the people wouldn't know which camera worked." Most of the cameras were donated by a secondhand store in Santa Cruz, Calif., and by friends.
Blank's van is an anomaly in the art-car world. Ten autofocus cameras on the van can take pictures. From inside, using a video monitor, Blank clicks the shutters. Most art cars are just there to be seen, not record the impact they make.
"People don't know what this is," says Blank, who has driven the van through 40 states. "I'm not sure I know what it is," he says, laughing. "But I'm fueled by the audience, just like any artist. No one has defined this to the audience, and I think too often we have been reduced to clowns." The fact that you don't have to pay to see this art belittles it in some people's eyes, he adds.
Of corks and art-car origins
California hot rodders emerged after World War II to alter stock engines of cars and streamline the bodies. But not until the free-wheeling 1960s did car and van owners significantly alter the appearance of their vehicles with painted flowers, slogans, and psychedelic symbols.
For the last 20 years, German carmaker BMW has commissioned one artist each year to transform a BMW into an art car. The artists include Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Frank Stella.
But do the art museums of today bestow the mantle "art" on all the cars?
"Quite frankly, the debate over what is art and what isn't is almost like debating what is real love and what isn't," Mr. Hoffberger says. "Museums were born as wonder cabinets, the result of exploration, mainly.... I think there is a prejudice in art circles to be terribly serious, and if something makes you laugh, well, how could it be art?"
For Beardsly, the cars are as sculptural and significant as anything being done today. "Art cars are art," he says. "The level of imagination, creativity, and craftsmanship in some of these cars is as good or better than a lot of contemporary sculpture I've seen."
Jan Elftmann, who coordinates the "Wheels As Art" event in Minneapolis, is the creator of the legendary Cork Car. The car has changed her life. "It has made me feel like I live in a small town," she says. "When I go anywhere in the car, I have conversations with people who knock on the window and say, 'Excuse me, where did you get all the corks?' "
She got all the corks, about 10,000 of them, from her job as a waitress, and glued them to a 1987 Mazda pickup. "The neighborhood has sort of adopted the car," she says. "People are all of sudden more gentle and friendly when you have an art car - at least a cork car."