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Houston's Art Car Parade

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Every year in April, downtown Houston is transformed into an outdoor car museum. Gas-powered cars are turned into rolling sculptures. These mobile masterpieces represent quintessential Houston: Free-spirited, Creative, whimsical. It is an event like no other in the city or the nation, so it comes as no surprise that Houston is called the Art Car capital of the world.

This year was the 35th Annual Houston Art Car Parade, after a two-year hiatus due to Covid. The city was ready and eager to show-off its artistic talent and creative genius with a total of 250 cars, from 22 states, including entries from Canada and Mexico, and a spectatorship of over 250,000.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi- The Covid Cruiser by Quidel, Dallas TX- First Place winner Commercial Entry

It wasn't always this big and brash.

The Art Car Parade has its origins in 1984 when a car donated to the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art (OSCVA) was transformed into The Fruitmobile by artist Jackie Harris.1984 was also the year that the late Ann Harithas, beloved local curator, artist and co-founder of the Art Car Museum and Parade, curated the Collision show at The Lawndale Art Center. This exhibition was followed by Rachel Hecker's and Trish Herrera's New Music Parade and the Orange Show's Road Show in 1986, all of which featured a dozen automobiles that had been transformed by artists into works of art. On April 9, 1988, as part of the Houston International Festival, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art produced Roadside Attractions: The Art Car Parade with 40 art cars seen by 2,000 people, the world's first Art-Car Parade.

The Art Car Movement puts emphasis on personal expression over conformity. Art Cars reflect the idiosyncrasy of their creator, free of convention, and often communicating a social or political message, through the imagery or use of particular materials. It is the ultimate mobile canvas, a beacon of individualism that surprises, amuses and brings artistic spectacle to the streets.

This year, the OSCVA awarded $16,250 in prize money through a judging process, in 12 categories. Judges look for craftmanship, theme, design and originality. To see this year's winners click here. Entries are eligible for a prize if it is the first time they are seen at the parade or if they underwent a lot of modifications since their last entry.


In mid-February, I had an opportunity to help an Art Car participant, Gerry Waters, during one of her open-day community sessions. I was tasked with spray-painting one of the thousands of "feathers" that were going to cover the body of the enormous Phoenix, rising from the car/ ashes.

photo credit: Waters Family

Gerry and her husband Lou, had re-entered their award-winning Art Car in 2019, the last Art Car parade before Covid. Their entry was a 34 ft long, 2000 Lb. Triceratops which they called Hippiesaurus and converted it from a junkyard dinosaur scrap into an ode to the hippie era with its painted hearts, rainbows and peace signs. The car won the Mayor's Cup in 2018, the parade's Grand Prize.

photo credit: Richard Tomcala

This year, the Waters family entry was no less jaw-dropping- Rising Strong took 1 1/2 years to complete, and included hydraulics, welding, wiring, lighting and a ton of spray-painting and hot glue.

photo credit: Waters Family

View more photos in this slideshow:

photo credit: Waters Family and Lana Rigsby

To gain insight into what it takes to create an Art Car, I spoke to three of this year's participants:

Gerry Waters, a Bellaire resident who used to watch the Art Car Parade from the sidelines until she decided she wanted to be among the artists in the event.

Rebecca Bass, is an art teacher, and veteran participant who hasn't skipped a year since 1989 when she entered her first car with her Edison Middle School students. She is a driving force in the Houston community for bringing the Art Car to the forefront of art education. She is the creator and founder of Houston Independent School District's award winning Art Car class that has won first place in the Houston Art Car Parade (among others) since 1991. In 2019, she and her Heights High School Students created a tribute car to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bass

Over the years, her 30+ art cars have paid tribute to Prince, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Queen and countless others. In 2017, Her Purple Reign car, created with her Heights High School students, won the Mayor's Cup, the top honor.

Click the arrow to see the slideshow:

photo courtesy Rebecca Bass

Elia Quiles is one of the duo that make up Up-Art Studio, an organization in Houston that creates, curates, and manages public art and projects. She and her husband Noah have been creating Art Cars for Bayou Preservation Association (BPA) since 2017 when a BPA board member donated a car for the Art Car Parade and commissioned Up Art to design it.

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

I am grateful to Rebecca Bass, Elia Quiles, and Gerry Waters for agreeing to answer my questions about their Art Cars in this year's parade.


Can you describe the creative process? From choosing the car, to the theme, to the final product?

G.W: I knew I wanted a phoenix. I started working on this car in October 2020. The feather process by itself took six months. They are made out of CDs that I cut into feather shapes. I am not an artist and don't know how to draw but I had a vague sense of what I wanted to do. I had huge pieces of paper where I would sketch out how the wings would look. Building the frame took a very long time. We all worked together to figure it out but I left the engineering and mechanics to Lou!

R.B: I worked closely with the kids beginning in January 2022, after school. We came up with a theme and we boded on it. I gave each kid a big piece of paper and we drew what the Art Car could look like. It didn't need to be a good drawing. Then I get a giant piece of paper and I draw what they want. It acts as a road map to let them know where we are heading. From there, they drive the creative process. It's a community-building project. I encourage them to take ownership and to work together as a team. I also talk to them about how art affects people and how their car needs to be relatable to the audience. Art in museums can be alienating. This is an opportunity to create art that connects to a wide audience. I just want them to do the very best they know how!

E.Q: This year, I used the same car as the 2017 entry but repainted it with new motifs. I hired Sylvia Blanco, a local Houston artist to paint the car. Bayou Preservation Association wanted imagery of the Bayou painted on the car. Sylvia included fauna, flora and wildlife and added the letters CPR which stand for Celebrate, Protect, Respect (the Bayou waterways). It is an ode to an ambulance that performs CPR. This time it's to remind people to keep our bayous clean and to remove trash so our wildlife can thrive.

What are some boundaries or considerations you need to work with?

G.W: Working with Lou (my husband) is amazing. I usually have a vague sense of the concept but then it gets bigger and bigger because he helps me figure out all the mechanics, like with the Hippiesaurus when he figured out we could drive the dinosaur seated on top of it. With the phoenix, he figured out how to place it onto the frame of the car and make the wings move.

R.B: It needs to be family-friendly because the school name is painted on the car. Otherwise, I let them figure it out and give them a chance to fail during the problem-solving phase. We work without a budget or constraint. I have never spent more than $500 for any of my cars. Everything is donated. One time, my students wanted to put a pool on the car and we figured out how to do it and just went for it. They even wore swimsuits for the parade.

E.Q: I don't have any boundaries. Bayou Preservation Association was open to our ideas and concept sketches that we presented to their art-car committee and board. They gave us feedback. For example, we modified the turtle to more accurately represent turtles found in our Bayous. They also provide us with the budget.

What is the best part of being involved with the Art Car Parade?

G.W: As a family it was fun not talking about the mundane stuff, but rather, about our shared project. It took us out of ourselves and became our conversation topic at the dinner table. It's fun to get together with people and have a shared activity. As adults, we don't really do that. So many people who helped out during our open community sessions came up to me to say it was the most fun they had in a long time. You are really thinking in a very different way. It's pretty mindful but also very relaxing.

R.B: It's very bonding. Being part of a unit, a bigger thing. Adults miss it.

E.Q: My daughter was so excited to participate during the parade. My husband was the driver and my daughter rode on the canoe on top of the car, she was so excited to show off! It was such a great moment. There was so much excitement and great energy from the crowd. That was the best moment.

G.W: The other great moment was the Friday morning before the parade. We woke up early to finish spray painting the tops of the wings. We were on the lift, up high, the wind was blowing and it felt amazing to be up there with Lou, talking and collaborating, as part of a team, seeing it all mounted and almost finished.


In closing:

"It's been a blast! the smell of silicon in spring gives me great joy. I know how much fun I am going to have." Rebecca Bass (whose 2022 entry may have been her last....unless....)

The Art Car experience is "the very best of Houston in terms of community, creativity and collaboration." Gerry Waters

"The parade was.a time to celebrate" Elia Quiles

"It's been an honor to have been a part of this for all these years. I never thought in all my life that I would have legacy like this." Rebecca Bass

Photo Gallery of some of the art-cars on display at Discovery Green

photo credit: Hadia Mawlawi

With very special thanks to Rebecca Bass, Elia Quiles and Gerry Waters for their time and contribution to my blog. I wish them continued success in all their creative pursuits.


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