ComFest preview: Art cars are revving up for festival season

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

You've probably seen them driving around town, at festivals or maybe even parked in your neighborhood. If you haven't seen an art car, you're missing out on some of the wildest, most exuberant art in the city. A number of art cars will be on display in Goodale Park for this weekend's ComFest.

Art cars aren't automobiles covered in a Picasso or something out of MTV's "Pimp My Ride." Art cars are hand decorated, often with glued trinkets and toys, reflectors, jewelry, mirrors - really anything you can think of - on the exterior and interior. Some paint designs on the cars, but the biggest enthusiasts in Columbus are gluing everything under the sun to their vehicle.

Art cars have been around for decades, but only became a presence locally in the late '90s. Greg Phelps, one of Columbus' longest tenured art-car creators/owners, went "no more half measures" after meeting Ramona Moon, who's been a member of the art car community since the '70s.

"In 1999, I started gluing on my car after I met Ramona. I wasn't really familiar with the whole art car scene, that there was a whole community of art cars around the country and that there were festivals and parades to attend," Phelps said standing beside his current art car, That Car #3, parked in front his Clintonville home. "The first car, That Car #1, was a Mazda Miata that I covered with a lot of baby doll heads and toys."

Moon, a Columbus native, was living in San Francisco when she began her first art car - the Turkey Toyota, a 1967 Toyota Corona - in 1978. She had fallen in love with the art cars around the Bay area and needed to create her own.

"People just see one and go, 'Oh, I've got to do that.' There are just certain people, [often] very outgoing types of people, who need to do it," Moon said next to another one of art cars, the Motley Malibu (aka Maliglu), outside her studio at Brick Box Studios in Grandview.

Moon moved back to Columbus in 1995, and brought the decorative duo along via trailer. Each needed some work before being road ready, especially the Motley Malibu.

The 1976 Chevy was already an art-car creation, but was then presented at the Marin County Fair where anyone could glue whatever wherever, including the windows. After the fair, it sat in a field for two years before the Marin County Arts Council donated it to Moon. She spent two years removing all the unwanted items from the car, but did very little mechanical repair because, as she puts it, "this car is a great driver."

Once Phelps was introduced to Moon's outrageous autos, he set out on his own, crafting the baby-doll-head-bedazzled Miata. Once That Car #1 became too old for daily driving - oh yeah, they drive these babies everywhere - he began That Car #2 with a Chevy Cavalier.

"Once you start gluing stuff to your car, people give you stuff. Even though I don't have a lot of toys on my car, since the last two did, I have boxes and boxes of toys. You recycle them and give them to other art-car projects," Phelps said.

Phelps eventually donated That Car #2 to another local artist, and began his third incarnation: a 2009 Nissan Versa emblazoned with reflectors, glass beads, corks (as an homage to another Columbus art car) and a small baby-doll-head sculpture in the rear (honoring That Car #1). He covered the dash in toys and figurines, and added a small chandelier to the ceiling.

Even though most of That Car #3 is adorned with something, Phelps doesn't spend all his time working on it; only a handful of times a year for a couple hours at a time.

"That guy probably spends more time waxing and washing his car than I spend gluing," Phelps said with a chuckle, pointing to a luxury car parked nearby.

Moon has made additions and changes to both vehicles over the decades, but essentially they remain as they did when she first began. Moon finds other creative outlets. She's a longtime columnist for the Short North Gazette (under the moniker Christine Hayes), like her father Ben Hayes who wrote for the Columbus Citizen-Journal. And inside her studio are dozens of sculptures aesthetically similar to her art cars.

Phelps and Moon said they're seeing more art cars around Columbus, but it's hard to gauge because some owners remain private. Phelps leaves notes on new art cars he finds and sometimes never hears back. "I didn't say there are dues or you have to fill out a membership application; it's just, I like your car."

The art car community will be a popular presence at festivals this summer, culminating with September's Hot Times Community Festival, which has grown into Ohio's largest art-car exhibition.

Photos by Tim Johnson