Art on Wheels

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A Volkswagen beetle cleverly encrusted in  gems catches eyes on Main Street, or a car decorated as though wrapped in the American flag rolls past on Broad. These unusual looking vehicles are not just for show. They could very well be on their way to a neighborhood school for one of Art 120’s car-a-van workshops, and they might have been created by a team of local kids for an Art Car Parade. The casual observer might also spy a bike that looks like an orca whale—another product of Art 120’s Urban Bike workshops.

Art 120 was established in 2010 and it has brought a zany and youthful quality to Chattanooga through its mission. The organization’s mission can be explained through the
acronym used in the name. As they say on the website—It is all about A.R.T:

  • Awareness between community, artist, and non-profit organization.
  • Reaching out to the public through free art events
  • Teaching workforce development skills to urban youth.

Through art cars, urban bike camps and workshops, and now with its new distinction as a Creative Arts Maker Space, Art 120 aims to make functional creativity accessible.

Kate Warren

Kate Warren

Kate Warren, Art 120’s founder and executive director says she “fell in love with and was so inspired by the way Chattanooga used art as a vehicle for drawing young people and fresh talent.” She was impressed by the city’s commitment to include public art and artists in its renaissance revitalization, but when she first came to Chattanooga from Houston, Warren was shocked to find that there were a number of schools in Hamilton County that did not have art programs.

She turned towards what has become a Houston phenomenon for inspiration—art cars. In Houston, Warren says, a group of roughly ten artists decided to throw an impromptu parade of the decorative cars. She was inspired by the growth she saw in the size of this parade, which now draws crowds of up to 500 people, and thought art cars would be as great an asset to students in Chattanooga. She was able to make Art 120 into a reality in 2010, with the initiative to further enrich the city of Chattanooga with accessible art. Artists turn cars into wildly imaginative vehicles. Images from the Art 120 website show a yellow car with a giant rubber duck on its hood and one decked out like a piano.

One of Art 120’s missions is to bring these cars to the 32 elementary schools in Hamilton County that otherwise do not have art programs. Why bring art via car? Cars are familiar objects to everybody. Art cars draw from the concept of car shows where cars are often creatively modified. Even fantastically decorated, a car can be easily driven around and admired by any passerby. Art cars are multi-functional because they incorporate artistic expression with a mechanical object that is accessible to people across many different socio-economic backgrounds. Introducing kids to art through something familiar like a car leads to a multi-disciplinary lesson in the workshops that involve art, math, and some basic mechanics.

In the workshops, each school gets two visiting artists accompanied by the art car. The kids come out by grade and get to see one cool car and a visiting artist–owner who might help lead lessons not only in art, but also in physics and math. In addition to these artist visits, Art 120 provides kids with the opportunity to work on their own art cars and later be in an art car parade. Anybody, including “artists, educators,community organizations and schools,” can register to create their own art car, collaborating on a theme as a group or working solo.

Kids working as a team

Kids working as a team

Art 120 also holds workshops for school groups to come together to work as a team. “One of the main takeaways for the kids is—if you have an idea, just try it,” says Warren.

New board member Mike Harrison sees two main challenges for the organization, funding of course, but the other is time.

“Art 120 and Kathryn leverage a lot of volunteers, including me. And the people who are often the most capable are often very busy doing what they do to put food on their table,” says Harrison. He believes enlisting more volunteers and raising awareness are the keys. “Having helped with a few events, I love meeting the kids who want to build an art bike and their supportive parents.”

Art 120 extends its mission not only through the art car workshops and car parade, but also with its Urban Art Bike workshops. The summer program held at the Southside studio aims to not only allow creativity, but also to empower kids through introducing real-world skills, including the use of power tools and introductory welding.

Kids learn they can accomplish a lot more than they thought they could, and come away with a bike they have built entirely themselves. Warren found special success with an all-girls iteration of the program. She noticed that the girls collaborated much more than the boys, and found they were empowered by their ability to create bikes with their newfound technical skills.

“Art 120 brings the best of many worlds together, but most specifically technology and art. It teaches the youth that they can take boring utilitarian bicycles and transform them into an expressive mode of transportation. This is important for kids to see and experience,” says Isaac Duncan, regional sculptor and Art 120 board member. “Organizations like Art 120, keep the light burning for creative people.”

Art 120Now, Art 120 will be expanding its mission. It has been selected by The Maker Education Initiative to be one of four nonprofits able to claim the title of Maker Education Host site as a Creative Arts Maker Space. The definition of a Maker Space is quite malleable, but generally most of these spaces feature STE(A)M learning and doing in an environment that encourages collaboration and innovation. As a maker space, Art 120 will continue what it is already doing: providing a space that empowers young people by engaging their creativity and teaching them practical skills.

Workshop space will not only be a means to get kids who have no other way to experience art to come to understand it better.

Art 120 will use its studio in Chattanooga’s Southside to further its maker capabilities with the assistance of the Americorps VISTA program, which provides two yearlong paid interns. As a nonprofit, Art 120 relies on the enthusiasm and generosity of the general public and its donations. Being a part of the VISTA program will provide an extra boost in the broader effort to reach out to kids in public schools.

More information about Art 120 and its mission can be found here: www.art120.org.  This article was originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.

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Lucy Morel is a freelance writer in Chattanooga who is interested in neighborhood arts organizations.

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