Autos the canvas that fuels Minneapolis artcar scene

Autos the canvas that fuels Minneapolis artcar scene

by Paul F. P. Pogue

Angie's List member Janet Skidmore of Mendota Heights, Minn. didn't initially intend to join the artcar community.

In order to make a political statement after her disappointment with the 2004 elections, she adorned her 1990 Toyota Corolla bumper to bumper with political stickers and found she liked the idea of using her car as a visual canvas.

The political connotations attracted both positive and negative attention, she says, so she decided to try a less controversial design. In 2008, Skidmore used vinyl stickers to cover the same car with "Red Mountain," a mosaic-style mountain and sky scene.

"I don't have a lot of visual art background, except for some painting in high school, but I could literally see it in my mind's eye," she says.

In the process, Skidmore joined the quirky community of artists whose artworks literally move them, including an annual parade around Lake Harriet in July and a winter cruise-in on the lake's 2-foot-thick ice.

Jan Elftmann — artist, gallery curator and a Minnesota State Arts Board member — has been a driving force behind the Twin Cities artcar scene since 1996, when she founded the ArtCars of Minnesota parade, which she still directs annually. The event attracts 60 to 80 decorated cars and bikes. It's free and open to anyone who wants to show up with an art vehicle.

"It's all so personal for everyone involved," Elftmann says. "For myself, I can't believe I'd be driving a factory-finished car without personalizing it. It's an outlet for creativity."

Elftmann became known for the Cork Truck — a pickup decorated with thousands of wine corks she collected while working in an Italian restaurant.

"I had these corks for years and didn't realize what I would do with them until I saw my first artcar parade, the big granddaddy of all artcar events in Houston in 1995, and realized the possibilities," she says.

Her most recent creation is "Holey Circle," a 1995 Honda Civic entirely embellished with circular items ranging from buttons and coins to plates and hubcaps.

Many of the cars are quite old but sturdy; "Holey Circle" has 160,000 miles on it, and Elftmann expects to keep it going to the 300,000-mile mark. "You can't put that time into a car and not drive it," she says.

Steve Batchelder, owner of highly rated Lyndale Auto in Minneapolis, has serviced and maintained numerous artcars over the years, including the Cork Truck. He says the artcars face more challenges such as age, excess weight and poor cooling circulation caused by the heavily covered exteriors. And sometimes their problems are more suited for a botanist than a mechanic.

"I remember a Volkswagen that was covered in beans," he says. "It was pretty, but they got stuck in a rainstorm, and the thing sprouted!"

Elftmann says the artcars are ideal outlets for creativity. "You have to be an extrovert, because when you drive around in your car, people will ask all sorts of questions about it!" she says.

Skidmore drives "Red Mountain" on weekends, and says she sometimes forgets how distinctive it is. "But I love the attention, and I love how people react to it," she says.

Artcar Parade 2010 features artcars, artbikes and artboats on July 24 around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. For more information, go to

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