HOUSTON — When Ann and Jim Harithas opened Houston's Art Car Museum in 1998, they wanted to offer a place where you could see art cars year-round. The result is a gallery that mixes more traditional fine art with the kind on wheels.
"Art cars are a uniquely new American art form and they should be shown with fine art because they are fine art," says Alicia Duplan.
The museum is currently featuring work by local artist Harold Bourdier.
"We wanted to have some cars that complimented that, so all the cars are metal," Duplan explains.
Those cars, which from the museum's own collection of 20 or so award-winning art cars, are Phantoms, Bat Wing and Cigs Kill. Though all are made out of metal, they have distinctly different personalities.
Inspired by the Bugatti Atlantic Coupe of the '30s, artist WT Burge's Phantoms features haunting faces on the front end and fenders.
"He tack-welded each and every tiny piece of mild steel," points out Duplan. "It's a beautiful car. It's not easy to drive, but it's a beautiful car."
While Phantoms was built from the ground up, it's easy to tell Bat Wing was once a VW Cabriolet.
"It's kind of subtle, but it's a beauty," Duplan says.
Crafted by longtime art car artist Johnny Rojas, Bat Wing features two sculpted wings, metal spiderweb detailing on the grill and headlines, as well as a spider on the back end.
"It's very detailed," says Duplan.
Then there's Cigs Kill. Inspired by artist Alex Harrah's battled with COPD, as well as the deaths of his parents from longtime smoking, his message is clear: cigarettes kill. The 1951 Nash Statesman was stretched in the front to house a 1978 Lincoln Continental chassis and motor.
"He hand-crafted all the copper. He sculpted what I call the Nicotine Demon. He did the entire interior, upholstered it," Duplan says. "It just has so many details on it. Pushing up daisies over the windows. The cymbals are on the tires as hubcaps because it's all symbolic."
You can see examples of the museum's other cars in photos of past exhibitions.
"There are people who just feel compelled – or ‘driven’ – to decorate their cars, to customize them," says Duplan.
Ann Harithas was one of those people.
"She was just very involved in the art car scene, just helping support artists. She has done several of her own cars," Duplan says.
Ann passed away in December. To honor her, parade organizers at The Orange Show announced the “Ann Harithas Legacy Award.” But that's not all.
"We are having 10 of our museum-owned art cars at the beginning of the parade," shares Duplan.
It's a fitting tribute to a woman who not only embraced, but celebrated, Houston’s unique art car culture.
"We’re just really grateful she walked the planet with us," Duplan added.