Art on Wheels

. September 10, 2019.
Dr. Matthew Donahue with his “Red, White and Blue Jackson Pollocktik” piece, made from a 1971 Dodge Dart. The car will be on display at the “Art Car in Popular Culture and Experience” event on September 14. Photo courtesy: Matt Donahue.
Dr. Matthew Donahue with his “Red, White and Blue Jackson Pollocktik” piece, made from a 1971 Dodge Dart. The car will be on display at the “Art Car in Popular Culture and Experience” event on September 14. Photo courtesy: Matt Donahue.

TMA presentation looks at the history of “art cars”

You don’t see them on the road often, but when you do, they are hard to forget.

A sedan coated from bumper to bumper with vintage toys. A van covered with hundreds of cameras, designed to resemble a giant camera itself. A Volkswagen Bug painted with an explosion of psychedelic colors, like a pure expression of the 60s transported to the present day.

Welcome to the world of art cars— normal, everyday vehicles converted into a moving, street-legal canvas.

“[The art car] can take many forms, from painted cars, collaged cars with found objects, sculpted cars. To me, creating/refurbishing a classic car makes it an art car, although some art car purists may disagree,” said Dr. Matthew Donahue, senior lecturer at Bowling Green State University and author of the 2009 book Taking It to the Streets: An Art Car Experience.

Authority and artist

Dr. Donahue will be the featured speaker at an event dedicated to the history and artistic legacy of the art car at the Toledo Museum of Art on September 14. Dubbed “The Art Car in Popular Culture and Experience,” the event will serve as a finale to TMA’s special Life is a Highway exhibit, on view at the museum since June 15.

Donahue will not only be an authority at the art car event but will also be a presenting artist— exhibiting his “Red, White and Blue Jackson Pollocktik,” a 1971 Dodge Dart coated with paint in tribute to the splashed/poured patterns that abstract expressionist artist made famous.

“For me being able to participate in this event is quite an honor as a local artist from Northwest Ohio,” Donahue said. “To be able to speak about your art and the art medium that I work in, and exhibit my artwork at the Toledo Museum of Art is kind of a dream come true. I have exhibited my artwork before in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Toledo Area Artists Exhibition, but have never formally lectured (at the Museum).”

Tricked out

The origins of this transformative art form are somewhat murky. Donahue himself believes the earliest expression of the art car can be found in the 1950s, connected to the rise of “hot rod” culture and the souped-up rides that cruised the streets. By the time the ‘60s rolled around, so too did the hippies with their VW buses with psychedelic paint jobs.

“Since then the art car grew in popularity and really blew up in the mid-1990s and 2000s. Houston, Texas is the home of the largest art car exhibition in the world, with over 350 vehicles on display and related events that draw over 250,000 people,” Donahue said.

Many artists who work on cars aren’t trying to create a piece to sell, necessarily. Often the car in question is their daily driver, serving its traditional function as, well, a car. People simply want to create an expression of themselves on an unusual canvas, exhibiting the pieces at shows all over the country. Donahue’s passion for the art car as an art form came as a natural evolution of his love for collage and sculpture in general, as well as a passion for automobiles. “In the mid-1990s, I participated/exhibited in a rolling sculpture art exhibit in Chicago and saw all the amazing art cars at this exhibit,” Donahue said. “The following year, I traveled to Houston, exhibiting an art car, a pickup truck decorated in a collage style with topographical maps called the ‘Map Mobile.’”

Junkyard heaven

Donahue has made 20 art cars himself over the years, from his Jackson Pollocktik pieces to “record cars,” covered in various sizes of vinyl record albums. “I have been fortunate to have what I call ‘art car patrons’ who are folks who collect older automobiles and have let me create my art on these older cars,” Donahue said.

Donahue hopes his TMA audience will be interested and inspired by what they see on September 14. “I hope that attendees get a deeper understanding of the art car in popular culture, the techniques of making an art car and hopefully a few folks might walk away and create their own art car.”

“The Art Car in Popular Culture and Experience” will take place on September 14 at the Toledo Museum of Art. The talk begins at 10:30am and the car show begins at noon.  For more information, visit