Art on wheels

Most people regard their car as a means of transportation; artist and Toledo firefighter, Melanie Harris, uses hers as a vehicle of self-expression.

The 1978 Ford Fairmont, covered in bamboo and Polynesian regalia, has been a familiar sight in Toledo area parades for years and is now being shown off in art car shows across the country.

“The car originally belonged to a friend—in 2003 I helped him make it into a ‘toast car’ by covering it in urethane coated slices of bread,” Harris said. When he moved out of town, Melanie  took ownership and recalls, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.”  

To say that Harris is a collector of cool, kitschy, found objects is an understatement. A visit to her Old West End home is like being transported to a  tropical resort from the 50’s, chock full of Tiki bars, hula girls and rattan furniture. She’s known for her art of intriguing assemblages of miniature environments—another way Harris incorporates her penchant for found objects. Likewise, her ‘78 Ford Fairmont is a Tiki odyssey.

Harris paused when questioned about her affinity for tropical kitsch. As a child of the 60’s, when Hawaiian/Polynesian culture became popular after the acquisition of our 50th state, Harris has fond memories of family vacations in Florida where tropical decor abounded.

Her paradise ended after  the tragic loss of her brother in a fire and her parents’ divorce. As an adult, she was drawn to things that reminded her of those happier days and began collecting all things tiki. It seemed only natural to use them in her art—including her car.

The hood and body of ‘78 Tiki, (the title of her art car depicted on the license plate), is laminated with narrow slats of bamboo and flanked by elongated tiki torches. The roof and trim are a mosaic of shards of azure blue ceramic tile. The ‘cherry on top” is a carved wooden Tiki god nestled amongst lava rocks. A vintage 1957 Sears Roebuck trailer is pulled behind. She admits that the ensemble is still a work in progress, and is currently constructing a mountain flowing with glowing lava.

It’s been a labor of love—Harris says the guts of the car have been completely rebuilt. “Under the hood, it’s a ‘94 Mustang-from the firewall to the front bumper,” she said. Not to mention the constant maintenance to restore or protect the bamboo from the exposure to the elements.
Harris has been in numerous parades (including the Old West End Festival’s infamous King Wamba Parade) and, as well, has appeared in art car shows across the country.