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Houston’s Art Cars Return in an Entertaining New Format

The Orange Show's latest event occurs May 14–16.

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If ever an event would appeal to Houston’s LGBTQ community, it would be the three-day Houston Art Car Experience coming to the five-acre campus of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

“The cars are fabulous,” says Jonathan Beitler, an openly gay publicist for Barrelhouse Media, the marketing agency that is promoting the event. “It’s really artsy. It’s like drag for cars.”

The show, which features automobiles transformed by 80 artists into canvases for creative expression, will be on display May 14–16 near the University of Houston campus. COVID restrictions forced the annual Art Car Parade to cancel again this year, but visitors can still view the automotive artwork in a fun setting that allows for social distancing.

“Houston Art Car Experience will allow the public to more closely engage with the art than they have in the past, while also enjoying the aspects of Houston Art Car Weekend that they have grown to love—community partnerships, artistic collaborations, incredible musical entertainment, and the joy that comes from a true freedom of artistic expression,” according to Tommy Ralph Pace, the Orange Show’s executive director.

Beitler notes that several of the car artists are gay, along with Pace and multiple members of his staff. Diversity is key to the success of the event, the publicist explains.

“We are always looking for new groups and individuals to use their creative talents to build their own cars,” Beitler says. “We would like to see more representation [from a wide array of] community groups—whoever wants to be part of it.”

The program this year will vary from day to night. Visitors to the day shows will embark on the Art Car Walk, which is a quarter-mile digital self-guided tour. Each car in the maze will display a barcode to link visitors’ smartphones to video clips of the artists explaining their work. Entries from previous parades will be on display, and a few of the lowriders, painted cars, contraptions, and mobile sculptures will be driven around each day. Children’s crafts, refreshments, and art-car merchandise will also be available.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, the Houston Art Car Experience by Night will feature live music, light and projection art, elaborate costumes, and special performances. Tickets will start at $40, with reserved VIP areas for groups of four available for $1,000. Proceeds will benefit the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. The live-music stage will feature Tomar & The FCS and Bayou City Funk on Friday night, and The Suffers and Los Skarnales on Saturday night.

The art-car tradition began in 1984 when the Orange Show Foundation commissioned the Fruitmobile as a novel display of self-expression. That led to the first annual Houston Art Car Parade, which grew to include the Art Car Weekend that has attracted visitors from around the world.

The Orange Show was originally a maze of architectural elements decorated with mosaics and brightly-painted figures created by Houston postal worker Jeff McKissack, who named it after his favorite fruit. He repurposed common building materials to transform his East End lot. After his death in 1980, Houston arts patron Marilyn Oshman formed the nonprofit Orange Show Foundation to perpetuate McKissack’s artistic vision. 

Beitler notes that the Art Car Experience is the largest public event in Houston today, and that its continued growth is anticipated. “It’s one of the iconic events that makes Houston unique. We encourage dressing wacky, having fun, and being yourself.”

What: Houston Art Car Experience
When: May 14–16
Where: Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, 2334 Gulf Terminal Rd.
Info: orangeshow.org

This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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David Webb

David Webb is a veteran Texas journalist with four decades of experience in the mainstream and alternative media.
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