Thunderbird: What Is a Car?

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This was a fun project.  A commission for the Automobile Association of America (AAA) in Wilmington, DE., it was  done in collaboration with fellow junk sculptor Scot Kaylor.  Collaboration projects are some of my favorites.  It comes from years of playing music in bands.  It comes from playing neighborhood sports. It comes from being involved with theatrical productions. And so on.  I find that unexpected fun (and strife of course) and creative turns make the journey of collaboration incredibly rewarding.  Much of this same dynamic appears in my work as a restoration carpentry, also in my marriage, family, and community.  I think of collaboration as a sculpture all of its own, as Joseph Beuys called it, a "social sculpture."  It seemed fitting that for this place centered around the modern vehicle, we were involved with the most ancient of vehicles, of trans portation: art.

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The piece was to be placed on a large rounded wall in the lobby of the new AAA headquarters.  We got drawings and took pictures and visited the sight...did measurements and set about making sketches, models, and gathering ideas for materials. The folks at AAA were enthusiastic and willing to be bold with the piece. 


I must admit I never was much of a car guy.  My parents had to force me to get my driver's license.  But once we began our research on older cars, especially the "brightwork" (the shiny jewelry of classic automobiles) I realized I had been missing how incredibly sculptural the details were.  I fell in love with hub caps and mirrors, with steering wheels and hood ornaments. I fell in love with the shapes of the hoods and the fenders. In general I became a great appreciator of the industrial design that flourished in our country (until roughly the time period that leisure suits and tony orlando and dawn seeped into our culture)(I'm not saying they caused the demise of industrial design... neccessarily)

Two things leapt out of our research for Scot and me, which we were inpired to explore more in depth for this piece.  

1. The visionary space age quality of much of these automobile/vehicle related designs

2. the relationship to ancient myth, especially in American Indian culture that permeated the names and imagery associated with road vehicles.  

The odd juxtapositon of these things, even contradictions, was part of what fueled our process I think.

After we did our presentation to the commitee, we went about collecting materials in the usual way.... going to junk yards, digging through our own piles of rubble, keeping our eyes peeled for stuff on the side of the road. We thought the piece would be nearly 20' long.  So both Scott and I had to build a scale model of the wall shape in our studios so we could make the pieces seperately that we would eventually sew together.  

Our studios are about an hour apart and couldn't be more different.  (That's another theme in my collaborations) Scot is a meticulous and delicate welder.  His studio is also meticulous, like a Joseph Cornell assemblage, with wonderful shelves of fasteners and odd metal parts.  My studio is not like that.  

My artwork to this point mostly involved wood and paint and carving and fabrication related to carpentry.  Metal was not much of my vocabulary.  Other than antique hardware for my restoration projects, metal was metal was metal.  Scot was all about metal, how it was joined, the brutal strength of it, and the refinement and permanence it was capable of.  In the exchange, I got all of those metal qualities, and he got color and texture and imagery.  

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The final wall piece utilized parts of 5 car hoods (a Volare is the only one you might recognize) numerous tail lights, boat parts, mirrors, grills, and other found "autoesque"  debris.  

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The wood work, the painting and carving and finishing happened in the last stage, after we had mechanically assembled the piece.  The final piece was 27' long, so it had to be designed in a way that could be taken apart into sections and then be reassembled.  You can see we were counting on the acuracy of our studio model in the picture above. And below.


Installation, miraculously went off without a hitch.  

In the end we titled the piece "Thunderbird."  Scot and I created a mythological creature, one that equally echoed the mythology of the American Indian version of the Thunderbird and the mythology of the American automobile. We saw our creature as a protector and generator of "trans portation" of all kinds.  The road and all its inhabitants, the web of roads and trails, is one giant cultural collaboration.  The whirring of multitudes of machines, all are speeding toward adventures and destinations, not completely intentional. For the auto is also a part of contributing to the fragility of our environment.  It has both the capacity to protect and to ruin us.  We must stay awake on the road. 

Or pull off and take naps.   

If you're on a road trip near Wilmington, DE. "Thunderbird" awaits your visit in the lobby of AAA headquarters there! 

Michael Biddison       610-247-8718