This Kansas City artist's ride is more than just a car — it's a sculpture
When artist Philo Northrup works on his car, he’s not just changing oil or inflating his tires — he’s using found objects to tell a story. And when you see his car in your rearview mirror with painted flames and outrageous accessories, what you're seeing is more than just a vehicle — it's a movable sculpture.
On a warm spring day, Philo Northrup added blue neon flames to the side of the car parked in his driveway. He's spent thousands of hours modifying the automobile, molding it into an art car.
“So this is Philco,” Northrup explained. “It has a lot of 20th century manufactured products, industrial age stuff. It's kind of a beast.”
Northrup is an assemblage artist. He takes interesting objects and puts them together — sometimes bolting them to his car.
“The hood is a shot up refrigerator door from the 1950s,” Northrup said. “It has a huge toothy grille from a 1961 Buick Special Riviera, and then it has a big rib bone spoiler up front and a huge vertebrae in the back.”
“It has elk antlers bursting out of this fridge door being consumed by these flames around the engine,” Northrup continued with a grin.
Northrup documented every step of the construction of Philco on his blog, but he said he prefers to keep the make and model of the car beneath a mystery.
Northrup said the ephemerality of cars is part of the power of the medium — but since they take so much time and effort to build, the key is starting with a new vehicle.
“The first three art cars I had were beaters," Northrup said. "It's very frustrating put all that work into it only to have them die."
“People will say, ‘Hey, I got a car that's not worth anything, Maybe I'll do something to it.’” Northrup said. “I’m like, that's like going to the pound and getting a 12-year-old dog. You're setting yourself up for heartache.”
Though art cars may look unusual, they have to follow certain rules. A car must be street legal and safe, and it needs to look as good in the parking lot as it does heading down the highway.
“The normal context for these vehicles is, is the regular world,” Northrup said. “You see them in your rearview mirror. You see them in the parking lot, you see them on the highway.”
“Philco” is Northrup’s seventh art car. He’s been creating the whimsical sculptures on wheels since he added zebra stripes to a Chevy Vega in 1983. Now Northrup owns two art cars and drives them every day. They attract a lot of attention, both on and off the road.
“These cars have been everywhere,” Northrup said. “They've been in Canada and Mexico and throughout the desert. Both these cars have crossed the Rockies, you know. Can your sculpture do that?”
The art car subculture has its origins in the colorful, psychedelic Volkswagen buses of the late 1960s. The movement gained momentum in the 1990s, inspired by festivals like Burning Man.
It’s rare to see an art car out in the wild, but there are art car gatherings all over the country — like the art car parades in Baltimore, Minneapolis andHouston. Northrup’s been to all of them. He co-founded one with Harrod Blank in San Francisco before he moved to Kansas City a couple years ago.
One of the oldest continuous art car events in the country started in 1997 in Lawrence, Kansas. The “Art Tougeau” parade is open to anything on wheels. The annual May event draws in artists from all over.
“Everybody's always inspired by the cars that show up,” said parade organizer Amy Carlson. She’s been involved with the event since the very beginning. Carlson said art cars brings out the kid in everyone.
“Look at the people it pulls together,” Carlson said. “It's just wacky, you know, and Kansas kind of needs that.”
This May, a group of Northrup’s friends from the national art car scene made the trip to the Midwest to participate in Lawrence’s annual parade.
Even outside parades and car shows, Northrup’s cars bring art into the world every day.
“I get love everywhere I go and they're almost universally electrified by it,” Northrup said. “What they get in a millisecond is that it's my car. I can do what I want with it. And this is what I chose to do with it. I obviously put some effort into it and they're just fascinated by that.”
It’s moments like these that make all the work on his car worthwhile.
“Making art is a very soul enriching thing, and everybody should do it.” Northrup said. “That doesn't mean everyone should be a quote-unquote artist, you know, but it's just really fulfilling to do something creative and share it with somebody.”