Let Them Roll
The Artists of Art on Wheels
By Christina Abt
It’s the difference between a theme and a concept.
That’s how Art on Wheels, the huge public art project co-sponsored by the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and the Materials reuse Project, differs from 2001’s Herd About Buffalo. Where many of the Herd sculptures (as fun as they were) were essentially painted fiberglass buffaloes, the Art on Wheels sculptures cover a much broader ideological and structural range.With the wheel (or transportation) as the basic subject matter, and with artists invited to use any means they like to address this subject, Art on Wheels is about much more than vehicles. In addition, Western New York cultural institutions have been invited to park a sculpture on their premises, ensuring that visitors touring the sculptures are bound to get a big (and hopefully painless) taste of other types of enrichment.
Altogether, there are sixty-four artworks, seven of which are functioning automobiles. The remaining fifty-seven can be found at a range of sites, from Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown to the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora.
There are seventy-two Western New York artists creating Art on Wheels sculptures. We talked to six of them.
Eight years ago while driving on a highway near her home, Hamburg artist Debbie Hill spotted what ultimately became her work’s permanent inspiration. “I saw this restaurant sign that read, ‘Debbie Does Chicken.’ I was so drawn to it that I even had my picture taken standing underneath it. From that point on, all my art has related to chickens.”
Accordingly, anyone familiar with Debbie’s fowl focus was not surprised at her Art on Wheels (AOW) proposal of “Red,” a fourteen foot chicken. “I originally made sketches of this chicken in 1995 with the ideal that the size would cause the viewer to become fearful or ‘chicken,’ themselves. With everything going on in the world right now, the idea of war and fear, I thought that the timing of this project was great. Really that’s what art is, a political statement, a reflection of the time.”
Faced with the AOW requirement of fabricating Red from recycled materials Debbie found inspiration, once again, while driving. “I saw a concrete mixer truck going down the highway and I thought that it would make the perfect chicken body.” Her creative vision further expanded to a monochromatic color scheme of rusty brown, along the ideal of a Rhode Island Red. “I didn’t want any part of the chicken to stick out in any way. Big pieces like this, that impress me, are always one solid color.”
While Debbie ably envisioned her oversized chick, she could not actualize it. “I had no idea how to do it,” the petite blond artist wryly states. So she turned to a fabricator she knew she could trusther daughter, Carley Jean. “I have always had a love and enjoyment of my mother’s art and I have a very clear understanding of her visuals,” Carley acknowledges. “I can generally understand how to create a three dimensional figure of her project.”
According to Debbie, this is not their first shared, mother/daughter art experience. “Actually we both went to UB in the early 1990s and even took an art history class together. Then in 2001 we collaborated on a piece that I called Half a Dozen Conversations with a Chicken. It was an Andy Warhol kind of piece that I designed and Carley silk-screened. She pretty much created the whole thing.”
Carley, who multi-tasks as a sculptor/welder/road construction laborer, enthusiastically delved into her mother’s most recent chicken project. She began by procuring Red’s cement mixer body (donated by Riefler Concrete) followed by an all out search for the remaining parts. “I love playing around in junkyards, tromping around and seeing what there is and how you can distort it into your vision,” she says with a wide faced grin.
What Carley ended up “distorting” were tail feather fenders from an old gas truck, used gear parts for legs, and reclaimed casters from a bulldozer for nonfunctioning wheels (the chicken sits on a “pull toy” wheel base.) Diversity is what stimulates this slight, yet physically powerful, young artist. “I like to work with different materials. I enjoy the sensitivities and nuances you can create using different materials. I also really enjoy the physical act of what it takes to put art like this together. I like to work outside and sweat and smell the materials on my hands.”
Carley credits her unusual cross-sectioned career to family ties. “Between my mother’s artistic profession and my father’s road contracting business, I was exposed to art while having the ability to work on a large scale through my father’s road equipment. Plus my sisters and I were raised with a clear understanding that art is a necessity, an important element in life, a communication of sorts.” To which her obviously proud mother adds, “I never approached the girls with the word, ‘No.’ I always taught them to consider the possibilities.”
The Hill’s pullet, sponsored by AOW Chairperson, Cindy Abbott Letro, is installed outside the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. Thanks to her Herd About Buffalo experience (Why the Chicken Crossed the Road first at the Greater Buffalo Niagara Airport, now at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens), Debbie knows the impact that this type of public art can provide. “It was great to see the way people participated and did tours to find the Buffaloes. I am hopeful that this project will generate that same kind of interest and community activity in the Burchfield/Albright Knox area.”
On a personal level, Hill notes Red’s significance. “I also work as an interior decorator so it’s been nice to do something ‘art’ again. It’s also been exciting to see a piece materialize that I knew I couldn’t do.” Carley voices her own perspective: “The element of working with my mother has been the best part of this project in that she is a person who sets no limits when it comes to possibilities.”
Never one to give up the last word, Debbie pointedly adds, “It’s important to me that people who view this piece understand that this isn’t something just based on a tourist idea. It’s meant to act as a reflection of the times we live in and to explore something integral to society, which is art.”
Batavia native Vincenzo Del Plato is a dually devoted artist. “It’s becoming more and more my purpose in life to create both music and art. They are both so integral to my being.” Considering his twofold dedication it was almost predictable that Del Plato would choose a music based theme for his Art on Wheels (AOW) creation.
“Originally, I thought about doing a kinetic installation using electricity or steam, or constructing a large tricycle,” Del Plato states. “I really hadn’t thought at all about doing an art car.” However, through his involvement in a blues music project, his focus realigned. “I came up with this idea of putting a hat and sunglasses on a car. Then it struck me to make a ‘Blues Brothers’ Car.’”
For those unfamiliar with Del Plato’s theme, it relates to a 1980 movie of the same name starring John Belushi and Dan Akroyd as blues singers. “I know Buffalo has a reputation as a blues town so I thought it was a good match,” Del Plato says.
Having formulated his design, the art/music man awaited the arrival of his automotive canvas, a hulking, 1976 Ford Torino. Del Plato recalls, “When the flatbed truck delivered it into the yard I thought it would be perfect for the project. Although as I worked on it, I will admit, I did feel like I was destroying a good car.”
From design to reality, the project presented the forty year old craftsman with an assortment of challenges such as driving nails through the car’s seemingly impenetrable roof and making cuts through it’s minutely stylized, side windows. Del Plato lobbied for creative solutions from a unique collective. “I solicited as much information as I could from the Polka Dot, a café in Batavia where I spend a lot of time.”
The artist’s landlord, a construction company owner, also added to the consultant mix. “It was really cool when I would explain the project to people and they would get onboard and take an interest,” Del Plato notes. “It really was re-enforcement to keep going.”
One of the most thought provoking challenges the intent artist faced involved the project’s components. “I tried to stay as true to the design that I submitted as possible, but one of my problems was using recycled materials, which was a requirement.”
Yet bit by bit, Del Plato scavenged the necessary ingredients. “My three brothers and I play hockey. I shoot left while they shoot right. So I used our old hockey sticks to make the sunglass arms. The lenses I created out of some fluorescent light bulb lenses I got from a restaurant that had been sitting in my studio for over a year. The wood for the hat armature came from old pallets. ... Finally, I sprayed the whole car with a flat black paint and hand painted a white shirt and black tie on the hood.”
Once assembled, the task became how to keep the artistic form from interfering with the automotive function. “Since my project is a roving car, it obviously had to be driveable. One of the biggest challenges became the sunglasses; how to make them sit on the windshield of the car and then how to make them to lift up and slide back and remain in place on the car’s roof. Also the doors had to open and what I didn’t foresee was that the rims of the sunglasses would hinder that.”
The resolution to these and a myriad of other design roadblocks emerged through Del Plato’s simple work ethic. “I just took it one step at a time and then moved on.” Yet the determined Italian admits that his attitude did waver along the way. “There was a time in the process, and I think this happens in most projects, that it became a nuisance, but I don’t like to let things defeat me. ”
The success of Del Plato’s ADESSA sponsored project can be directly related to other designs in his portfolio. He was one of the Herd About Buffalo artists (the All American City Bison at Dunn Tire Park.) He also created three cows and one horse included in Rochester’s citywide “Art on Hoof” exhibition.
In considering his artistic motivation, Del Plato returns to his roots. “One of my favorite quotes is ‘Art blows away the dust off of everyday life.’ My father was a factory worker and my mother was a housewife. Nothing about their lives was too stimulating. So I used to try to do things, especially for my mother, to try and improve the quality of each day. That’s why I do my art, to try and make life just a little bit more stimulating.”
Natural Green Jalopy
Blend together one petroleum company, three dedicated and time-challenged teachers, a dozen or so high school students, a supportive school district, an involved merchant community, and the locale of the Buffalo Zoo and the end result, in this case, becomes the Art on Wheels (AOW) Environmentally Friendly Car.
Bruce Adams is the lead teacher of this Tonawanda High School endeavor. “I participated in Herd About Buffalo (Smoked Buffalo at Dunn Tire Park) and I thought that it would be a good idea to involve students in a project like this.”
Joining with fellow faculty members Elizabeth Randall and Tina Edholm in supervising the student-driven art project, the trio agreed that the learning process would be as significant as the end result. “Students don’t often have a chance to have real life experiences like this, that play out over a year,” Adams notes. “Plus in working on this project students are seeing not only the creative end, but they are having to make contacts with businesses and learn new skills that they never associated with art.”
The car’s environmental design evolved directly from student input gathered in May of 2002. Once formulated, students created the drawings for submission. The designs were then reworked and detailed by students, which ultimately led to their sponsorship by the NOCO Fuel Corporation. Adams recalls, “This was definitely the students’ project. As teachers, the three of us had an impact on their decision making, but the students did the work.”
The “work” Adams references involved the transformation of a 1993 Ford Thunderbird into a grass growing, tree shaded, fishpondmobile. “Lewis Collision in Tonawanda cut open the back of the car, sanded down the sharp edges and took out the back seats, which were all things that we hadn’t even thought about,” Adams notes in pinpointing the area now occupied by a fish pond and a flowering tree.
Yet once those revamps were complete, Adams states it was all students, all the time. “This project was an evolution in process and that process was trial by error. For example, none of the students had ever done any fiberglass work, so we had to go out and research the process. Even then, the students put it on and didn’t understand that it was supposed to be smooth and flat. So we had to trim and sand to try and make it smooth.”
Casey Dehlinger, one of the Tonawanda teens involved in the AOW undertaking, offers his interpretation: “I’ve always been involved in all different art projects in the school and what I liked about this one is that it’s not as two dimensional as others I have worked on. It was a challenge in that it was art, but not in the sense we’re used to. We didn’t use paints or charcoal; we used tools. So basically, we learned how to overcome the gap between traditional artistic mediums and basic mechanical tools, in order to achieve our ultimate artistic goal.”
Fifteen-year-old sophomore Vicki Derby shares a wide-range perspective: “I’ve never been involved in anything that lots of people see. So I’m finding it fun to be part of the community and interesting to see how other projects have turned out because we will all know what it took to make them happen.”
Tonawanda High School Art Club students
working on The Environmentally Friendly Car.
Photo by Jim Bush.
Trillian Sturckler, also a fifteen-year-old sophomore, picks up on the community thread. “I thought Herd About Buffalo was a great way to publicly bring more art and culture into the city. I’m pretty positive that Art on Wheels will do the same thing.”
The Environmentally Friendly Car is installed at the Buffalo Zoo. It is a locale the Tonawanda Team views as beneficial to the living elements in their project. “It hopefully will evolve over the summer,” Adams states. “The students will tend it like a garden as the plants and flowers grow.”
The supportive teacher/artist further assesses the project’s horizon-widening potential: “There is an impression that people in Tonawanda are somewhat hesitant about venturing into Buffalo. Through this project I believe that people from this area will go with their families and their friends and it will multiply and really have an impact.”
Attempting to visualize the Art on Wheels (AOW) proposal of collaborator/artists Andrea Mancuso and Peter D’Auria is a formidable task. Their use of such terms as alchemists, transmutation and corpus of the automobile, imprint their design with sterile, scientific, experimental tones, tangibly detached from the world of art. Yet from the first glimpse of the Mancuso/D’Auria roving art car, it is plain to see that, above all, this project is quite simply, fun.
Sponsored by the Northtown Automotive Group, Auto-abomination, (the project’s title), is a two vehicle, minivan consolidation that appears to be going forward no matter which direction it travels. “We wanted to take biological models and apply them to cars as a study in the way that they are an extension of ourselves as we mutate, reproduce and evolve,” Mancuso asserts.
When the AOW committee accepted the Mancuso/D’Auria concept, the scientifically grounded artists came to a singular realization. “Neither one of us had ever chopped up a car,” Mancuso admits. “But in the spirit of collaboration we figured we could find people to help us make it happen.”
Accordingly, Mancuso notes, their car chopping salvation arrived in the form of Northtown Automotive owners Larry Schreiber and Hynda Zabel. “We dropped our idea into the pool of people at the collision shop and they were happy to help.”
The mini revamp was coordinated by Northtown Body Shop Manager, Tony Saiia, an experienced auto body technician who, in his spare time, customizes cars. Saiia is quietly proud of his partnership role. “I took the project from idea to working, making the van driveable and completely safe.”
The veteran auto repairman details that the vehicle blending involved consultation and imagination. “I have an old customizer friend who suggested “skinning” the vans (taking the exterior body off the frame), rather than trying to merge and match two separate vehicles. So really, this is not two vehicles cut in half. It is one mini van, with the back cut off and the drive train and mechanics still in place, matched to a second mini van that has been skinned and cut in half with that front shell set onto the other frame, back to back.”
In assessing the finished product, Saiia explains his ultimate goal. “In addition to making it completely safe, I wanted to make the car look like it came from the factory that way.” Mancuso, in turn, praises Saiia’s ability to produce their artistic vision. “Tony is almost like a plastic surgeon.”
Once the minivan exterior matched their artistic ideal, Mancuso and D’Auria turned their attention inside. “We wanted the interior to reflect two lifestyles or characters joined together,” Mancuso states with a mischievous smile. “So I started spending time in parking lots and looking into people’s cars to see the kind of things we needed to collect.”
A round up of cell phones, backpacks, discarded food wrappers, and assorted clothing articles later, Auto-abomination fully reflected Mancuso’s parking lot research. “When you see it, there’s no question that cars are definitely a clear reflection of our culture,” she states.
With the car completed, both artists held a shared desire, voiced by D’Auria. “I was very excited to see it on the road with other cars and in parking lots with other cars. It’s fun when you can be in a neighborhood or a community and walk down the street and find something like this that is vibrant or unexpected. It helps stimulate your mind.” Mancuso agrees, “I am really interested in artwork that says things, which is what I strive for in my artwork. I try to address challenges and try to effect people in different ways.”
While Mancuso and D’Auria have collaborated artistically for over ten years (including a Herd About Buffalo entitled The Electric Tower at the Niagara Mohawk Building) they engage in separate and diverse full time occupations, Mancuso as an art teacher at The Nichols School and D’Auria as a physician’s assistant.
In considering their collaborative decade, the artists offer individual perspectives. “I think we’re always in disagreement,” D’Auria states. “But that helps weed out the worst ideas. I also appreciate the process in that it’s an exciting way to work, beginning with discussions that give the project a life of its own, even before it’s made.”
As for their reasons for participating in Art on Wheels, Buffalo native Mancuso is quick to respond. “Being an artist in Buffalo I feel strongly about being involved in these types of community service projects. Also there is a lot of integrity in this project in the way that it draws attention to the cultural sites involved.”
“I found two bikes in the garbage one day that seemed to have some value. Then I started seeing more bicycles in more garbages. When I heard about Art On Wheels (AOW) I thought it would be easy to create a sculpture collecting all the bicycles I kept seeing.”
So began artist Mark Taylor’s Bicycle Stick sculpture. Sponsored by First Niagara Bank the artwork is defined by two, three inch steel pipes, each twenty one feet in length, screwed together and buried six feet in the ground. Atop the pipe are stacked more than seventy bikes of assorted shapes, sizes and colors. “It was just an idea I had. I really don’t know where it came from,” the lanky artist admits. “I’ve just always loved bicycles and I do a lot of bike riding and when I showed the design to my girlfriend and my kids, they liked it. We all thought it was fun.”
Yet in between creation and construction, Taylor acknowledges his “fun” hit a snag. “I had collected about ten or so bicycles but as winter arrived, my sources ran dry.” In response, the desperate scavenger put out a call for help. “Wendy (Attea Huntington, AOW Director) sent an e-mail to her Burchfield Penny contacts and the next thing I knew I was getting calls from people in Colden and Boston, even as far away as Barker, New York.” To which Taylor good naturedly laughs and adds, “My Saturdays were pretty booked for a while driving around and picking up all those bikes.”
What Taylor never imagined was that his expanded scrounging would add a new dimension to his AOW design. “I didn’t necessarily want to be riding around picking up bicycles, but people just came to the forefront and were continually willing to donate to my cockamamie idea. What turned out to be bonus was when people began inviting me into their houses and telling me their bike’s histories.”
While listening to the bike tales, Taylor reached an artistic resolve. “I started to document the stories as I collected them and decided that when I was done, I would figure out a way to exhibit them along with the bikes.”
Taylor determined the order of each bike’s pole placement early on in the project. “I assembled them in the order that I received them. For some reason that was important to me.” Employing his wry sense of humor he adds, “It also saved me in having to make decisions and being challenged by the design.”
Bicycle Stick sits in Gateway Harbor Park at the western terminus of the Erie Canal. According to Taylor, the site’s natural ambiance inspired the work’s color scheme. “At first I wasn’t going to paint the bikes but after visiting the site and seeing that there are a lot of yellows and greens there I thought that the sculpture should be bright, active with color. Plus I thought that the kids could have some fun painting.”
The “kids” are two of Taylor’s four children and their friends. “My daughters, Holly and Jillian volunteered to paint along with Katie Grogan, Mitchell Maciuba, and the Berberich’sZack, Tally and Devin. They had fun and made a mess.”
Like almost half of the AOW artists, Taylor is a Herd About Buffalo veteran. He created two BuffaloesVerizon Bison on Swan St. and Buffalo Birthday at Dunn Tire Park). “Basically I am a plumber. I’ve been in the business for twenty-five years. I did go to school for fine art though and studied in both Buffalo and Toronto and I always continued my art.”
When discussing the message of his bicycle medium, the art/plumber craftsman espouses, “I just hope that whether people are riding by on their bikes or going past on a boat they experience the piece however they like and enjoy it.” When asked if viewer enjoyment matters, Taylor immediately responds, “Yeah, sure and it’s nice to see people’s reactions. Sometimes I show up anonymously just so I can see how people are reacting to my work.”
Then after pausing for a moment to reflect on his spoke wheeled collection, Taylor adds, “It’s funny some people wanted to just drop off their bikes with no stories. Just in and out, get it over. Others really didn’t want to give their bikes up but they thought it was wonderful to be part of a piece of art. I know, they’re just bikes, not the center of the universe, but for some people they have been.”
Christina M. Abt is a free lance writer whose work appears on a regular basis in her “Heart and Soul” newspaper column and WBFO radio commentaries. Her work can also be found in a variety of area magazines and newspapers as well as in several Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
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