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August 24, 2008

Taking a Tour of Texas' ArtCar Museum

Noggin_del_fuego A well-designed, attractive car can stand on its own merit for artistic expression, but there are some people who go way beyond gilding the automotive lily. Enter the Art Car.

On a recent weekend family trip to sprawling Houston, Texas, we could have spent time feeling creative at the city's well-regarded art museums like the Menil Collection or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but instead we went the funky decorative arts route at "Garage Mahal...." where we took a tour of the ArtCar Museum. 

Houston has a lively arts community, with a particular interest in contemporary and folk art. Since 1988, one of the big annual events is the Houston Art Car Parade.  It draws hundreds of vehicular entrants and thousands of cheering spectators, but visitors can view a few of the more amazing cars year-round at this small private museum of "mobile contraptions."

The intricacy of the artwork, the imaginative use of every bit of available automotive real estate, a friendly, knowledgeable staff, and the great price to get in (free!) makes for an unbeatable combination. 

James and Ann Harithas are the museum founders. Ann is active in building these cars; she is credited with curating the 1984 Collision Show, which featured the "Mad Cad" artistic Cadillac and kicked off the community's craze for elaborately personalizing otherwise bland factory models.

Exhibitions rotate at the museum, but our visit included:

Swamp_mutha_by_ann_harthas The "Swamp Mutha" by Ann Harithas. It featured gold-rimmed tires and a gold body covered in assorted murky 3D critters like alligators on the hood, swamp rats running across the trunk, random skulls across the car roof (along with a bunch of ducks) and decoupaged snakes.

Xyobot_by_jim_robertson Jim Robertson's "Xylotobot," sort of a welded tank-like thing with studs and diamond decking down the front.

The "Shell Car" was a Citroen with every possible inch covered in seashells, including small shells outlining each taillight, shells carefully placed on each metal bar of the front grill and a spectacular white interior with a shell-and-pearl decorated dashboard to die for.

Milan_car My favorite car had me so enthralled that I almost forgot to look at the placard with its name! The "Milan Car" was a long, pointy sort of thing with hundreds of little mosaic designs made of mirrors, buttons, forks, marbles, beads, scissors, dishes and teapots. Yes, whole teapots marching down the side. There were even slots on the front bumper that held a can of Lone Star beer and a bottle of Shiner Bock. Gotta support those local brews! What any of that has to do with Milan, I do not know.

All of the cars are drivable, although the added weight from the decorations makes for some pretty crummy gas mileage and puts a lot of stress on the tires, according to one of the museum docents.

The museum's entrance has a built-in carport plus jaw-dropping swoopy scrap metal and chrome decorations by David Best; the building stands out quite nicely on a quiet street of apartment buildings and convenience stores.

We got a little turned around finding it (going past the well-regarded local Star Pizza in the process, if you're looking for a place to eat nearby) but once you're on the right street, you can't miss the bizarro, Mad Max-ish metallic museum exterior.

Their Website includes a slide show of 18 amazing autos  and links to another site with photos of almost every car in the 2008 parade.

For those who want to learn more about this art form, take a look at the comprehensive and enthusiastic Art Car Central blog.

The visit was inspiring, and made me want to run out and start sticking things onto my suddenly colossally boring white Hyundai.

The ArtCar Museum is located at 140 Heights Blvd., Houston, Texas 77007. For additional information, telephone (713) 861 - 5526. Admission is free, and the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11am to 6pm. (Some photos courtesy the ArtCars Museum.)

Sheila_scarborough_headshot By Sheila Scarborough

Sheila is an award-winning writer specializing in travel, NHRA drag racing, and social media.  She has written for National Geographic Traveler, Texas Highways,,, and the Dallas Morning News. Her Family Travel  blog hosted on BootsnAll was one of three "Best Travel Blogs" in Real Simple magazine and a "Best of the net" in the UK's Guardian newspaper. Since the 2006 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, she has covered drag racing for Fast Machines  and

A certified Navy Master Training Specialist and former Associate Professor of Naval Science at the University of Florida, Sheila also teaches entry-level Web 2.0 workshops with the Austin-based Every Dot Connects  consortium.

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