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What Drives An Artist to Paint Cars?

This story first appeared last year in BmoreMedia, just before Artscape.

Bob Hieronimus recounts his notable artistic accomplishment of painting more than 50 murals in Baltimore.
There’s the 2,700 square-foot “The Apocalypse,” finished in 1969 at Johns Hopkins University, which depicts history as a cyclical force. His “E Pluribus Unum” completed in 1985 features famed diners at the Lexington Market. The 1996 “A Little Help From Our Friends” on the side of the Safe and Smart Community Resource Center on Greenmount Avenue portrays inspirational figures from Bob Marley to Rachel Carson.
But Hieronimus’ friendly blue eyes light up when he explains that his preferred canvas comes on four wheels. This summer will mark his 6th year participating in Artscape’s Art Car Exhibit, displaying a biodiesel-fueled 1984 Mercedes, known as “We the People.”
One of the nation’s largest free arts festivals, Artscape welcomes more 350,000 visitors during its three-day run each July and generates nearly $26 million for Baltimore. This year’s festival runs July 20-22 and marks its 31-year anniversary and its 19th year showcasing the art car exhibit.
One of Artscape’s most popular feature, the exhibit showcases cars with outlandish designs covering every inch of their frame. The cars attract a crowd, some with their mouths agape and observing in silence and others chatting with their friends about the visual spectacle before them. Artists design their cars without restraints, says Artscape Visual Arts Coordinator Jim Lucio. Art cars have ranged from a giant banana to an all-glass motif.
Hieronimus and his car remain memorable. “Bob is a great art car ambassador,” Lucio says. “He’s very engaging with the festival crowd and shows a great local car that everyone enjoys.”
Like his other artwork, Hieronimus’ art car begs for constant reassessment and rediscovery.  He says art cars are like billboards with different stories.
Hieronimus’ “We the People” car offers a harmonious blend of symbols and people, including the first African American astronomer Benjamin Banneker, the Iriquois prophet Deganawida and the names of six Iriquois nations scrolled across the hood. It also features Thomas Jefferson and Jimi Hendrix doing his Woodstock rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner. “ Hieronimus describes this as a reminder “that America has a spiritual destiny.”
The Owings Mills native and host of 21st Century Radio, Hieronimus says he wants people to see cars as symbolic change agents.
 “The reason why I painted cars was not the reason why most people painted cars,” says Hieronimus, 68, sporting a ponytail under his Beatle’s Yellow Submarine hat.
He started doing it in the 60s, at a time of what he describes as “mega-corruption.”
But artists like himself felt there was nothing they could do about it.
“We felt totally powerless, and when we talked to other people about it, they would say, ‘Ah, you’re just 22 years old, what the hell do you know?’ I realized that if I had something to say I better put it on a billboard. Well I couldn’t buy a billboard because I didn’t have any money. So I painted my car.”
Heironimus’ first car depicted money, soda and other “American hang-ups.” In 1968 he painted his famous “Light” the Woodstock Bus that became emblematic of the festival’s free spiritedness.
His fondness for mobile art especially lies in the bus. “It has big, flat areas,” explains Hieronimus.
“When you do a theme or a group of symbols, you have more places to work with. With the Mercedes or similar cars, there’s a lot of changes in the shape of them, so it’s more difficult.”
After a 30-year hiatus, Hieronimus’ next art car would be “Founding Fathers’ Secret Societies” in 2006, the first car that was Artscape-bound.
Hieronimus says he takes three to six months forming and revising designs on a schematic that resembles a paint-by-number. A skilled art car artist is also mindful of the upholstery color and car windows, considering how to best marry the interior with the exterior.
Implementing the final designs on the vehicle generally takes four to five months of 14-to-16 hour days. Hieronimus purchases roughly $5,000 in One Shot paint, a toxic paint used for vehicle surfaces. He used more than 100 gallons in 26 colors, eight different shades of red for each stripe on the car for his “Founding Fathers” art car.
Hieronimus says that aside from elderly ladies who often scoff at covering the surface of a classic Mercedes, he gets appreciative reactions from onlookers, whether he’s at Artscape, an Oriole’s game, or out running errands.
With four books from four different publishers in the works, Hieronimus says he has no desire to design a new art car but will continue to showcase “We the People.”
He does hope to inspire potential art car artists and offers advice.
“You are allowed from that standpoint to build your own little story  --  a story about who you are. If you follow through, you will really have something later on to enjoy. You’re bringing pleasure to all kinds of people.”

Jolene Carr is Bmore Media's summer intern and a graduate student at Towson University. She is originally from Syracuse, N.Y.


Bob Hieronimus and his art car.

A detail of Bob Hieronimus's art car.

All photographs by STEVE RUARK

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