While studying at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and waitressing at an Italian restaurant in St. Paul, Jan Elftmann began collecting corks. They were freely accessible to her with all the wine bottles she was opening at work, and she was interested in found-object art, but she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with them until she learned of a new art form at a parade in Houston, Texas: the art car.
Now, Elftmann drives a 1999 Saab Luxury Wagon covered from fender to fender with the 10,000 corks she has gathered over the years and serves as the founding director of the ArtCar and ArtBike Parade in Minneapolis.
“We all go to parades, and they end up being like marching bands and floats and princesses,” Elftmann says. “I think it’s a very unusual parade, to see people who are decorating and using their car as a canvas.”
It has been 25 years since Elftmann started the parade. It was followed by dozens of other cars covered in elaborate paintings, figurines, flowers, tiles, trophies, dominoes, and other decorative and sculptural elements. Some cars even boasted special features like waterworks and flame throwers. One car, in honor of the event’s silver anniversary, was covered only in silver stickers that the artist had invited passersby to put on.
Before the art cars made their trip around Lake Harriet, announcer Tom Carlson posed some questions to the curbside crowds: “What motivates them to do this? And what motivates you to come out here and watch these amazing pieces of art on wheels?”
“Because we’re a community,” someone shouted out.
“So that person’s had too much to drink, but what else?” Carlson responded.
It may not have been a good enough answer for Carlson, but it’s true that the artists behind the cars are a supportive and tight-knit bunch.
“I think we all collectively encourage each other through all our efforts, whatever we’re doing,” says Alan Christian, whose current art car is a spray-foamed, carved, glass-fired 1966 Ford F250 named Elmer Ford. “It’s a great honor for me personally to have these long-time friends now come over and celebrate, kind of, our gift to the world.”
It’s a community that extends well beyond the Twin Cities, as some art car artists will make treks to take part in more distant parades and fairs.
“We know artists from all over the United States who host art car events, so when you go to Houston and you mention the cork car to an art car artist down there, they’re like, ‘Oh yes, I know Jan,’” Elftmann says.
That Houston parade brings in hundreds of art cars and gives out over $10,000 to the winners in its various categories. The Minneapolis parade is intentionally kept much smaller and more laid-back. There are no prizes, no winners, only a generous judge wielding a cardboard sign who gives each car and bike that passes a 10 or (by turning the sign upside down) a 1.
Anyone with a decorated car or bike is welcome to take part; they don’t have to register or pay. Many of those participating in the parade are not trained artists. A bunch of elementary school kids from an Articulture summer camp even made one of the art cars, the Cosmic Kitty.
“There’s a number of local artists that work in different mediums on their own, and I see that extension into their vehicle,” Christian says. “But art cars can also be a singular form for somebody that wants to just bring themselves out into the world.” He falls into the former camp, Elmer Ford serving as an extension of his art studio and free museum, the House of Balls.
Carol Ahlgren falls into the latter camp. After getting to know some of the local art car artists—including Elftmann and Christian—and asking them lots of questions, she was convinced to make her first foray into the art world by turning her 1995 Toyota Turcell into the punnily toy-encrusted Toy Oh Tah, joining what she called the “art car family.”
“I don’t consider myself an artist, but it just opened this whole realm of creativity.” Ahlgren says. “It’s very zen-like just to think about where you’re going to put something, and start gluing, and pretty soon a couple of hours have passed.”
Rebecca Ames doesn’t consider herself an artist either, but unlike Ahlgren, she made her art car without knowing that there were other art cars out there. When she skidded on black ice and crunched the front fender of her 1988 Ford Thunderbird, she decided to make use of her profession as a plumber and hide the damage by installing a working faucet on the hood.
“People thought that was funny, so I added a drinking fountain on the trunk, and it just kind of took off from there,” Ames says. “I don’t care if they’re laughing at me or laughing with me, as long as they’re laughing.”
Her car now also has a sprinkler on the hood, a toilet on the top, hundreds of colorful flowers, records, dolls, pennies, Christmas lights, cat imagery as a tribute to her late pet Buster, a license plate that pays tribute to her late mother, and lots and lots of glitter.
“It’s such a joy to put a smile on people’s faces, to make them kind of question the world we live in, hopefully it plants a seed that ‘I can do this too,’” Christian says.
For those who aren’t quite ready to sacrifice the Blue Book value of their car, an art bike is a smaller commitment with just as much room for creativity. At the parade, artists rode bikes that had been transformed into frogs, unicorns, horses, pink creatures, steampunk machines, and displays of patriotism.
In addition to the parade around Lake Harriet every summer, there is an ArtCar and ArtBike Parade on ice on White Bear Lake every winter. But as it says across the side of Ahlgren’s Toy Oh Tah, “when you own an art car, every day is a parade.”
They may not always wear the costumes or blast the music that matches their car’s theme as they often do in the parades, but for some art car artists, their art car is their only car. It’s a piece of art that they take with them wherever they go, that unsuspecting drivers may encounter on freeways and in grocery store parking lots.
“Most people are extremely happy to see an art car because it’s just so out of the norm,” Elftmann says. “My favorite was this woman—she was on Nicollet and 25th—as she was walking across the street she just looked at my car and came over and gave it a giant hug and said, ‘I love this car!’”
For those who have the choice, though, when they can’t take any more of the car-hugging fans, dangerous drivers taking cell phone pictures (don’t forget the new law, folks—you’ll be fined for this), and occasional hecklers raining on their parade?
“If I want anonymity, I drive the Subaru,” Christian says.
The 27th ArtCar + ArtBike Parade
Saturday, July 24, 2021, at 6 p.m.
Bde Unma/Lake Harriet, Minneapolis
A Poetic Coincidence
Thomas R. Smith, a local poet whose work has appeared in the likes of Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, wrote a poem about the Toy Oh Tah when he saw it in a parking lot one day. It wasn’t for several years to come that he would learn the car belonged to Ahlgren, his old friend and former colleague. Read it below.
By Thomas R. Smith
Driving on a gloomy, winter-worn day with gloomy thoughts, underslept, uninspired, tired in body and spirit. The freeway a succession of gray or black frost-encrusted pods hurtling and whizzing around my automotive plod. My mood brightens before, a beat later, I realize why: ahead in the right-hand lane an art car studded with small colorful objects. I step on the gas, come up alongside, see glued to trunk, roof, and hood hundreds, possibly thousands of tchotchkes—dolls, trolls, smurfs, a mounted army of them, their green, orange and purple hair trailing in wind like a rainbow cotton candy comet. Plastic letters glued to the driver’s door decree:
EVERY DAY IS A PARADE
EVERY DAY IS A PARADE. Do you hear that, soul? How could we have forgotten? Art car, today you alone among the enslaved multitudes catch the joyful cosmic memo of freedom. As you cut your jolly swath through the gray workaday traffic, please throw us your towline of color and whimsy to pull us along with you, where we all can join your diminutive marching band, streamers of bright coarse hair fluttering past our ears.
Reprinted from Windy Day at Kabekona: New and Selected Prose Poems, White Pine Press. Copyright 2018 Thomas R. Smith. Used with his permission.