All art and photography courtesy of HotRod Jen.
We first met “HotRod” Jen Thomas (née Skidmore) back in November of 2013 when writing a piece for Speedobilia in Hemmings Muscle Machines (issue #125) on her pinstriped Christmas ornaments. At the time, Jen’s primary source of income came from her job as a designer making arrangements at a florist, but since then she has taken the leap and gone into business for herself full-time—pinstriping everything from cars, helmets and tool chests to art panels, skateboards and even walking canes—and recently the AACA Museum announced that it will be hosting an exhibit of her work.
Jen’s pinstriped ornaments—available in a variety of colors and styles—were an immediate hit.
Like many of us, Jen associates the AACA Museum with the pinnacle of the car hobby, and living less than 10 minutes away from it, she has had the pleasure of frequently attending its top-notch events, like the Fall Swap, the Elegance and the Grand Ascent. So what went through Jen’s mind when she learned that the renowned auto museum was interested in her art?
“No way!” she laughs. “Considering my work is more geared to the lowbrow, hot rod, ‘kustom kulture’ end of things, I was pretty shocked when the AACA contacted me. It truly is an honor. It feels good that my art can be a part of the museum, even if it is just for a short time.”
Detail photograph of Mike Szubas’s 1932 ford coupe. Jen enjoys pulling the focus in her pictures in so you have to look at a particular car in a new, more abstract way.
Jen comes from a long line of artists and gearheads, so the fact that she would eventually combine the two isn’t all that surprising. When Jen was in high school, she would go to shows and snap detail photographs of cars so that she could draw or paint them later. “I wanted to be more artistic instead of just drawing an image of a full car,” she says. This method allowed her to take time studying her subject so she could get it just right, and it had the added benefit of developing her skills as a photographer.
The iconic afterburners and tailfin of a 1959 Cadillac, rendered by Jen in charcoal.
Then, when she won the Congressional Art Competition with a pastel drawing of a 1942 Ford Business Coupe and a 1937 Dodge, Jen realized that her art could have broad appeal, so in 2004 she began taking it on the car show circuit. It was at one of these shows that a can of 1 Shot pinstriping paint came into her life.
HotRod Jen hard at work at a car show. Notice she’s a lefty; that makes pinstriping just that much more challenging.
Her uncle, an artist, taught her the basics of how to hold and load the brush. After only 20 minutes of instruction, he proclaimed her a natural. Then the real work began. Jen is one of those rare artists who is always practicing her art, whether it be creating custom and spec pieces or polishing her technique and attending workshops to learn new ones.
Of course this helmet says “Or die” on the other side! Gold leafing is another skill Jen has learned and gotten quite good at.
Jen is quick to point out that she has had a lot of help along the way, especially from folks in the pinstriping field like Alan Johnson, Glen Weisgerber, Jack Lindenberger and Dewayne Connot. “There was a time the artists wouldn’t share their knowledge in this field,” she explains. “I feel lucky to have come into this art at this time, because many of the greats are very helpful to the younger generation.”
One of Jen’s early mentors was her high school art teacher, Sally Dunn, who not only cultivated her artistic ability, but her sense of social responsibility as well. “She really inspired us to help out those who were less fortunate,” explains Jen. “I’m really happy that I can now do that by doing my art.” Because of Ms. Dunn, Jen is always paying it forward, making beautiful works of art to be auctioned at various events to raise money for charity.
Jen painted this unique creeper to be auctioned at the Jim Crawford Pinstripe Jamboree to benefit the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
The best artists innovate rather than replicate—”Make it new!” the poet Ezra Pound urged—and this is what we think may ultimately cause Jen to be remembered as one of the great pinstripe artists of her generation. “I don’t limit myself to what people think pinstriping should be; instead, I think about what it could be,” she says.
Her artist’s eye is open wide all the time, and it’s fairly omnivorous, drawing inspiration from everything from old machinery, vintage signs and traditional tattoos, to unfurling fern fronds and even music.
Vintage hand-lettered signs have been a big source of inspiration for Jen, one that has had obvious benefits.
She is especially captivated by the Art Deco era, with its rays, lightning bolts, geometric shapes, symmetry and exotic motifs. “As a kid,” Jen tells us, “I had always been interested in the past, but looking back now, I think the movie The Rocketeer really put the first glimmer of the Art Deco period in my eye: the streamlined helmet, the buildings and that Gee Bee Model Z. I even fell in love with the music.”
That early appreciation for the aesthetics of the interwar era found fertile ground in her imagination; it began to grow and eventually bore fruit. She learned to Lindy Hop and swing, and before she knew it, Art Deco had found it’s way into her art.
“Though I had always admired it, it hadn’t affected my work until one day I drove past a dilapidated Art Deco building in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I looked at it, and immediately got inspired by the architecture—the lines on the building were talking to me. I thought, why not channel Art Deco into my pinstripe designs? So I did, and now my Art Deco pieces are my favorite to do.”
To exquisite effect, Jen marries her distinctive interpretation of Edward Eggleston’s exotic “Lady of Mystery” (circa 1937) with gold leaf and Deco-inspired arabesque pinstriped designs in this 8 by 18-inch panel.
In many ways, pinstriping and the Art Deco aesthetic were made for one another. While the practice of pinstriping predates the era—it first appeared long before to accentuate and ornament furniture, safes, carriages, fire apparatuses and pretty much anything else people wanted to make seem special—it never quite came together with Deco the way Jen does it.
Of course that’s because pinstriping had yet to undergo its renaissance, and Jen’s style is very clearly of the lineage that began in that time in the early Fifties with artists like Tommy “The Greek” Hrones and Dean Jeffries and that extends to the “Weirdo” work of Ed Roth and Von Dutch.
Though Jen particularly enjoys creating Art Deco-inspired pieces, she is equally capable of an homage to the work of Von Dutch and Ed Roth.
Modern pinstriping tends to do more than highlight body lines and curves on cars and motorcycles. It’s often a feature in it’s own right, symmetrical and complex, incorporating loops, lyres, diamonds, spires and surfboard shapes in vibrant color and sometimes even gold leaf. With vision and skill, Jen is making it the perfect complement to the geometric shapes, exotic themes and deep lacquer-like colors so prominent in Art Deco period.
While Jen has been evolving her own style of pinstriping, she has also continued with her photography. On weekends when she’s not showing her work at car shows, she can usually be found trackside at events like the Jalopy Showdown, the Jalopy Drags or The Race of Gentlemen, angling with her camera and flecked with shredded rubber or powdered with track dust. Her work has been featured on the cover of Autoweek and has appeared in The Rodder’s Journal, Traditional Rod & Kulture, Rolls & Pleats, Hot Rods & Harleys and Hemmings Muscle Machines.
Jen captured this dual hemi-powered rail, with its burn out worthy of Cape Canaveral, at the Jalopy Showdown Drags at Beaver Springs Dragway in Pennsylvania
The exhibit at the AACA Museum will feature the full breadth of HotRod Jen’s work. “Her pinstriping work is reminiscent of the golden age of hot rods and customs,” says the museum’s executive director, Mark Lizewskie. “Jen also has a great eye with her camera skills. There is a lot of diversity in the type of art she creates, and we thought it would be a good fit for our visitors. She’s just the shot of adrenaline this hobby needs—she’s energetic, young and has a passion for cars!”
Running from March 11 to May 31st, the exhibit will feature a special pinstriping demonstration with Jen on March 12th at 2pm. As a Smithsonian affiliate, the AACA is offering admission to the demonstration free of charge as part of its Museum Day Live! program. Click here for details.