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"Albert Canstein," made by inmates at the Trinidad Correctional Facility.
"Albert Canstein," made by inmates at the Trinidad Correctional Facility.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

Art Cartopia Museum Puts Trinidad in the Driver’s Seat

For years, Trinidad was a dusty whistle-stop on the road to Raton Pass and New Mexico, a Victorian coal-mining town established in the late nineteenth century, just a stone’s throw from the site of the Ludlow Massacre and, later, the remnants of the Drop City artist commune. A stint as the Sex Change Capital of the World kept Trinidad in the news for a couple of decades, and now the marijuana industry is adding life to the local economy.

But if Rodney Wood has his way, art cars will be Trinidad’s biggest claim to fame, revving up the town's designation as an official Colorado Creative District.

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Wood is the founder and director of ArtoCade, an annual art-car celebration and parade that's been rolling through Trinidad every September since 2013. During its short history, the wacky festival has grown into a promising and popular attraction; Wood notes that ArtoCade is already outdrawing similar events in San Francisco and Seattle, if not the top of the heap: the fabled Houston Art Car Parade, which attracts up to 300,000 spectators.

"Aurora Porschi Alice," by Robyn Sanders.
"Aurora Porschi Alice," by Robyn Sanders.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

But he hopes to beat Houston with a year-round sideshow. After a first try stalled, Wood recently opened the doors to the Art Cartopia Museum, a volunteer-run garage where ArtoCade’s most legendary art cars — "Albert Canstein," "EyeVan," "Boney Whipman" and others — persuade travelers along the I-25 corridor to stop and visit for a while.

Wood’s pitch, however hucksterish, is sincere: “The museum is a publicity stunt to get people to Trinidad to see something out of the ordinary,” he explains. “We’re creating a real roadside attraction. We even have a giant gorilla blowup holding a car.”

"Phoenix," by Charlie and Gail Holthausen, trolls the streets of Trinidad during a recent ArtoCade.
"Phoenix," by Charlie and Gail Holthausen, trolls the streets of Trinidad during a recent ArtoCade.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

Art Cartopia currently holds about 25 art cars, each with a story all its own. “We have art cars made by kids, quilters, convicts and Christians,” he says. And that’s no joke: At least three of them were created by inmates at the Trinidad Correctional Facility, most notably "Albert Canstein," which is studded with crushed aluminum cans and carries a four-foot-high likeness of Albert Einstein on top.

Art cars are whatever you want them to be, says Wood: “If you can’t drive it, it’s a float. End of rules.” As long as it’s mobile and embellished, it’s an art car.

"Cardi Gras," by Peggy Westmoreland.
"Cardi Gras," by Peggy Westmoreland.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

The concept gained traction in the hippie era (think psychedelic vans, Janis Joplin’s famous painted Porsche and, eventually, commissioned BMW Art Cars) but has grown in scope and sophistication since then. “The seeds were planted in both San Francisco and Houston at a similar time,” Wood notes.

It was a “drive your art” movement from the start. “Success had nothing to do with sales of art," he adds. "You live your art, you don’t hang it on a gallery wall. Art cars became a free, open, blank canvas, with no rules.”

Many modern art cars utilize recycled materials: toys, CDs, trampolines, bottle caps, things that require minor budgeting and a lot of imagination. “It’s not outsider art, but a lot of these people would qualify,” Wood says. “Anybody can make an art car.”

"Bohemian Rhapsody," made by high school students and Rebecca Bass in Houston.
"Bohemian Rhapsody," made by high school students and Rebecca Bass in Houston.
Photo by Joe Kusumoto, courtesy of Rodney Wood

Some car creators qualify as much more than "anybody," though. Consider “Earth, Wind and Fire” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a pair of sparkling, junk-encrusted paeans to the innovative R&B band and Freddie Mercury, created by Houston art-car legend Rebecca Bass, who works with teams of high school kids to build her music-themed masterpieces. And then there’s “ChewBaru,” a toothy rolling shrine covered in teeth and dental apparatuses by Kansan Rex Rosenberg, and “Boney Whipman,” made by Andy Hazell from Wales.

“To call him a noted artist is an understatement,” Wood says of Hazell. “He started with a Wild West theme, and then made a stagecoach jet with a giant skeleton riding it!” Boney took a first-place ribbon in Houston in 2017, but calls Trinidad home the rest of the time.

"Boney Whipman," by Andy Hazell from Wales, guards the entrance to Art Cartopia.
"Boney Whipman," by Andy Hazell from Wales, guards the entrance to Art Cartopia.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

Art Cartopia might be the most notable art-car museum in the nation, says Wood, mainly because of its size and accessibility. “Houston has a small space, but they can only show five cars at a time," he notes.

The other one is in Douglas, Arizona, and is owned by art-car visionary Harodd Blank, son of filmmaker Les Blank and the guiding light behind the Bay Area’s Art Car Fest and Burning Man’s art-car theme camp. “His museum is amazing, but it’s never open — and it’s on the way to nowhere,” Wood points out.

Art Cartopia's exterior with "EyeVan" and "Boney Whipman," plus a VW parts sculpture by Trinidadian artist Hans Droog.
Art Cartopia's exterior with "EyeVan" and "Boney Whipman," plus a VW parts sculpture by Trinidadian artist Hans Droog.
Courtesy of Rodney Wood

Meanwhile, Art Cartopia is just off a major highway. And if you pull off the interstate and up to the museum, chances are good that someone will be around to tell you about the cars on display, Wood promises: “We’re not docents — we have ’splainers.” They're also jokesters, and “there are a lot of bad puns in Art Car Nation,” Wood admits, including his own eyeball-studded “EyeVan” and “Cardi Gras,” which is covered in beads, pennies, Slinkys and other Mardi Gras memorabilia. “These things make Mardi Gras floats look minimalist,” he says.

Steer over to Art Cartopia at 2702 Freedom Road in Trinidad (I-25, Exit 15). Winter hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free. Learn more on Facebook; a full website is currently under construction

This year’s ArtoCade parade, with 115-plus entries from more than fifteen states, as well as an Art Lights and Fire Show and the CarDango dance party, is set for September 13 and 14 in Trinidad. Watch for updates at artocade.com.

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