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Hot rods and hot licks: A model for partnerships between cultural institutions and car culture

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos by the author.

The 2019 Richmond, Virginia Folk Festival marked the 15th anniversary of a popular event that began with a three-year hosting of the national festival, featuring big names and newcomers in many genres of music. This year, however, the rumble of hot rods mingled with twangs, throat-singing, and drums heard at Brown’s Island and the former site of Tredegar Iron Works.

I went by to look at what customizer and restorer Marty Martino was up to: carving a replica of the Ford Levacar from a block of foam, and in the process I found a lot more. The event suggests ways to bring the world of car culture to younger folks who might have come to hear acts like Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks belt out some righteous blues. Many of the festivalgoers ended up learning about a world only visible on cable shows and behind barriers, real or imagined.

One hopes a few of them decided to turn a wrench or pick up a paint gun. There was certainly a crowd present. On Saturday, we barely got through the crowd on the bridges before the exhibits closed. On Sunday, however, we had hours to hear music and talk to the hot rodders.

Several designers attended, sponsored by the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities, from my alma mater the University of Virginia. Within hearing distance of some world-class blues and rockabilly acts, the hot rod show aimed to “celebrate and showcase some of the Commonwealth’s most skilled and innovative automotive magicians.”

My original intentions focused on Marty Martino’s Levacar, but soon I was talking to owners of hot rods on display as well as three craftsmen; time did not permit lengthy interviews but I wanted to give a shout-out to them as well. I learned that many artists live within an hour or two of my home. This could get expensive fast, for a future project. But isn’t that what spare cash is for?

Kent Writtenberry of Kentz Kustomz had an unfinished project on display, one that solved a mystery from my trip to Canada in 2017. I’d found a place in Moncton that sells boxes of now-US-legal Cuban Partagas cigars, but I got distracted by all the antique cars in town that day. I learned from Kent that I had stumbled upon the Atlantic Nationals. For 2020, he’ll be giving away the car shown at the Folk Festival. Kent’s a talented painter and metalcrafter, so I was eager to get his information for the day when I build a ’50s-style street rod. Hope springs eternal for the next cool ride.

If (okay, when) I ever need custom pinstriping for said project, I’ll turn to Tom VanNorthwick, who displayed not only his superb stripes but also oil paintings. He’s talented in both mediums. I’ve been thinking about a commission for painting the old family shop, with my wife’s and my cars out front, as well as a sampling of her brothers’ and nephews’ performance cars, old and modern. Be sure to get a look at Tom’s Flickr gallery while you are investigating his work.

A charming VW Beetle, chopped and lowered, caught my eye. It has been a regular driver for Jack Harris of Salem, Virginia’s Medieval MoatorSports (yes, that’s “Moat,” as in castle) for a while, and it’s quite the conversation starter. When not cutting metal, Jack invited everyone to have a seat. I could not resist, bumping my noggin and stoking my need for something chopped in my future. Like Marty Martino, Jack does not have a web presence, but if you want project work, reach out to him at madjaxx24@aol.com

All four artisans gave talks to a local DJ who emceed their presentations, and they demonstrated their crafts all day Saturday and Sunday. I got a kick out of watching Jack and Kent shape metal, something new to many of the people who may have come to hear English ballads but instead discovered an English Wheel.

All told, these artists inspire the next generation while celebrating those pioneers in a hobby barely a century old.

With that in mind, I decided to put some questions to Marty and Jon Lohman, who is director of the Folklife Program and the Virginia State Folklorist. Jon had generously offered to display my ‘74 “Project Apollo” with the finished hot rods, but I had to decline because a worn parking pawl recently sent the Buick down a hill and into some bushes at my house. Though the car suffered no damage, I didn’t want anyone hurt if the Apollo decided to go for an unplanned and unmanned exploration mission around Brown’s Island.

JE: What inspired the focus on hot rodding?

JL: We think of folklife as the various ways in which people express “this is who we are,” often through aesthetic means, throughout their daily lives. The kinds of folk traditions we showcase and support can range from music, craft, foodways, rituals, architecture, work traditions, and the countless other human activities that arise from cultural communities, be they bonded by region, ethnicity, occupation, family, or collective passions. We are most interested in traditions that are passed on from person to person, often intergenerationally. We focus on the handmade over the mass-produced, though clearly in the case of hot rods it involves a dynamic interplay between these two. To us, hot rods could fit squarely under the definition of a cherished folk craft.

Virginia has a deeply rich tradition of automotive arts, and we have worked with a number of masters of the trade over the years, and several have participated in our Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program over the years. We (the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities) have produced the Virginia Folklife Area at the Richmond Folk Festival since its inception as the National Folk Festival in 2015, and each year we focus on Virginia’s folk traditions and work with a different theme. We thought that Virginia’s car culture would make an awesome theme, and I think we were right.

JE: What got you excited about participating, yourself?

JL: This year’s event shows one way that cultural institutions can embrace car culture and attract younger people to its history and future. How successful was that pairing at the Folk Festival?

I think it was extremely successful. In terms of the participants themselves, I think that there can be a real power in removing a particular tradition from its normal context of presentation. Often I find we all often take our own traditions for granted. Sometimes it takes folks to see how their work and craft is viewed from outside eyes to get a better sense of just how remarkable it actually is. I spoke to another of our demonstrators who felt this deeply over the course of the weekend.

I also think that framing this as a “folk art” can really focus people’s attention to the artistry, the virtuosity, and the nuances of the craft itself. While auto shows naturally attract audiences with an already established passion and knowledge base about cars, the Folk Festival was a way to expose this to those who probably never gave a moment’s thought as to how metal is stretched around a wheel well or indented, or how vents or cut, and so forth. Some might have always assumed that a pinstripe was a decal. Providing the opportunity for festival audiences to meet and interact with some of the masters shines a light not only on them but on the entire creative tradition.

MM: This is too easy. Fifteen years ago my girlfriend Susan suggested that we attend a live music concert that was coming to town, the first Richmond Folk Festival.

Since we both have a love of music that parallels our love of design, attending was a no-brainer. The venue was Richmond’s beautiful Brown’s Island. It was set up with multiple stages all performing different genres of music that changed throughout the day. For me, it was the musical equivalent of attending Hershey or Amelia Island. Needless to say, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed all 15 festivals and look forward to many more.

When Professor Roddy Moore at Ferrum College called me, asking about finding custom hot rods for a car show in Richmond, I was certainly interested in helping, but then when he told me that it was for the Richmond Folk Festival, it was like he added a supercharger to the request!

I soon met Jon and was instantly taken by his enthusiasm, dedication and knowledge. That put me in overdrive to help any way that I could, and I am forever grateful to Jon and the staff for the opportunity to participate this year! They can count me in for any help I can give to the future Folk Life displays and demonstrations.

JE: What challenges emerged that you would address, if you did this again?

JL: Every festival exhibition creates its own set of challenges. The greatest one here was probably the logistics of getting cars loaded in and loaded out, stowing large trailers, figuring out how to get them back through a festival site of over 100,000 people. I’d say we also encountered some challenges in that this event was so different than the kinds of cruise ins, etc. that our owners of display cars were used to. You can try to explain it to them beforehand, but they won’t really know until they experience it.

JE: What sort of questions did exhibitors get about hod rodding or the hobby, generally?

MM: My display was primarily based on “factory customs,” concept dream cars, with my personal hot rod shop truck as part of the display. Questions about the truck were pretty straight forward, such as “Do you really drive that everyday? What engine is in it? How did you do that custom designed part?”

Then the car enthusiast would make a comment about seeing the Biscayne at the Petersen last year or something else they were familiar with relating to the display.

But wow! The questions about me sculpting a foam body buck and the other custom concept cars that I had been involved with were all over the map! One group of young gaming enthusiasts were fascinated that I used similar methods as they use to create costumes and masks of their favorite characters. During an interview about the Chrysler Norseman’s fate, a woman interrupted and told us her name was Andrea Doria! Her dad was a ship enthusiast and gave her the name. I then showed her photos of the ill-fated Norseman which had sunk along with the Andrea Doria. She had never seen images of the car. The hair still stands up on my arms over that one.

Then there was the was the art teacher that was giving me pointers on using the hot wire for the foam, and another who said she had similar tools as I use when I’m in my environment. Many times throughout the weekend I explained that I’ve never used a hot wire, but being in a crowd there was no way I could grind, sand or cut the foam as I would in my studio, as the snow storm would cover the entire island!

I’ve since smoothed the chiseled looking foam form into final shape with the doors closed while wearing protective gear!

I had a photo sequence of how I go from drawings to a lofted sculpture on display. The last photo was of the finished car, the PsyClone. I explained the sequence many times over the weekend after questions and puzzled looks. This “teaching” was the most fun for me! I would add that these methods are folk art as today most new designs and product sculpture is done by hands-free computer-aided CNC, 3D printing, etc.

I really loved getting questions from kids that had their imagination sparked by what they saw and heard! By Sunday night, my voice was getting raspy, but reflecting back over the weekend I was happy for it.

JE: Are there future plans for more such events?

JL: We work with a different theme every year, but would love to involve hot rods again in some way very soon. The audiences loved them, and we so enjoyed having them.

Postscript: George Jetson Gets His Ride

Marty could only do basic shaping with a carving tool at the Festival, so when my old college buddy Chris visited, we took a trip to Marty’s Batcave. It was appropriate to get them together. Chris, now at Raytheon, is a rocket scientist who has worked on spacecraft control systems and orbital mechanics at Jet Propulsion Lab, Boeing, and Hughes. He was turning a torque wrench on a barn-find ‘57 Chevy 210 before he could drive, and he still drives the car weekly.

We found that while the Levacar tribute is not ready for a journey into orbit, it is coming together nicely. Marty’s plans are to coat the foam in epoxy, eventually finishing the project’s interior and adding a plexiglas bubble. For now, he’s entertaining the idea of building it as a riding mower, with a skirt hiding the wheels. When some Elroy Jetson mows with this futuristic apparition, he is certain to halt traffic.

But isn’t that the point?

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond. He’s a part-time farmer, too, and he writes about rural life at http://tractorpunk.blogspot.com.