My Art Car Life — How Houston’s Uniquely Creative Auto Artists Build a Truly Giving and Joyful Community

The Storied Art Car Parade Is Just the Exclamation Point on the Fun

BY Sarah Gish // 04.12.24

The death of my Jeep launched me into the world of art car making. This 21-year journey has included five projects so far: Artmobile (2003-2004), Hubba Hubba (2011-2013), Phoenix Rising (2013-2021), LOVE IGNITES! (2021-2022) and my current art car dubbed Iggy the Igniter, which came to life in 2022.

My art car life is one full of stories, losses, creativity and transformations. It has brought me a tribe of friends who are as eccentric as I am. I have learned that everything happens for a reason and that glorious beginnings can come out of endings.

I live in Houston — The Art Car Capital of the World — a place that has a long history with art cars and supporting those who drive them. The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art is the epicenter for all things art car. Since the 1990s, I have hung out there as much as I can, teaching and attending its events. The 37th Annual Houston Art Car Parade is set for this Saturday, April 13.

I had always admired art car artists, but never thought I had what it took to become one. In 2003, that changed.

My First Art Car

After I totaled my Jeep, I was gifted a seen better days 21-year-old Toyota Tercel. My creative wheels started spinning, literally and figuratively.

I grabbed Orange Show education coordinator Beth Secor’s 1998 book, Start-Up Advice: The How To’s of Art Cars, and appointed my dear friend and fellow artist Rosemarie Croll as my art director. We brought together a community to make my first art car dubbed Artmobile, featuring panels with 18 artworks by kids and adults aged from 3 to 75 years old.

Artmobile was driven in the 2004 Art Car Parade, and it was a family and friends affair. During that first art car experience, I saw the way art can change people. Over the years, many friends and family members have joined me at the Art Car Parades, both inside my cars and outside dancing along the route. There is always a feeling of joy as we all come together to “celebrate the artist in everyone” as the Orange Show motto proclaims.

My car encouraged people to ignite and connect. I even had a BMW owner roll down his window and shout at me, “I love your car!” There he was in his fancy drive, telling me how much he loved my broken down, yet artfully revived Tercel.

Unfortunately, Artmobile died after the parade. Adding to the heartache, my dear brother Geoffrey Gish died of alcoholism in August of that year. Endings and beginnings were emerging as a theme.

Sarah Gish with her second art car <em>Hubba Hubba</em> (Photo by Kim Coffman)
Sarah Gish with her second art car Hubba Hubba (Photo by Kim Coffman)

The Birth of Hubba Hubba

My next car was a used Mazda, which my husband insisted we pay off before I could turn it into a project. I languished during those years without an art car — but after writing that last check and paying for a quick turquoise paint job, I finally enlisted my girlfriends to paint bottle caps and parts of the car with me.

While working on this auto, I truly started developing my style and talents as an artist. It was important to me that each car had a story behind the art, and with each project I further challenged myself.

We worked hard and created Hubba Hubba, which was decorated with 1,961 bottle caps — a tribute to the year my brother was born — and seven hubcaps.

In 2013, I created my IGNITE YOUR LIFE! art project in honor of my brother. I took Hubba Hubba on the project’s inaugural road trip with my dear friend and fellow artist Amanda Smith.  As we traveled from Houston to California, I took photos of people and asked them to share how they ignited their lives.

Hubba Hubba stranded in Phoenix (Photo by Sarah Gish)

While driving through Phoenix, Arizona on the way back home, Hubba Hubba caught on fire under the hood. I discovered 10 years later that my brother’s car had also caught on fire under the hood on that exact date in 1979. It was as if the universe was laying out a story for me.

I salvaged what I could from Hubba Hubba and purchased a used Toyota. It was white and would be my next canvas. I had markers in the car, so I pulled those out at every stop on the drive back to Houston and invited people to draw on the car. It helped ease the pain of a zero art ride.

Sarah Gish’s third art car Phoenix Rising featured painted rocks. (Photo by Sarah Gish)

A Phoenix Rises

Once home, I immediately started making my third art car Phoenix Rising. Before then, I had been a glue-it-on gal. This time, I decided to try my hand at painting the car myself. I decided to use only four colors (orange, red, yellow and teal) because of their connection to chakras and to fire.

Grill art is featured on the Phoenix Rising art car, created by Sarah Crawford. (Photo by Sarah Gish)

I continued making this car in community. My girlfriends and I painted circular glass rocks this time — lots of them. My talented friend Sarah Crawford created beautiful grill art for me in honor of four special people who had died, including my brother. Sadly, Sarah herself passed away a few years later.

Sarah Gish’s fourth art car LOVE IGNITES! is a creative labor of love. (Photo by Sarah Gish)

Igniting Art Car Life

After a mishap with my bumper during the pandemic, I decided to rework Phoenix Rising and rename her LOVE IGNITES! She became my fourth art car. The car’s name was dedicated to my belief that love ignites and transforms all that we do.

The 12 hearts by MaryScott Hagle for LOVE IGNITES! are powerful symbols. (Photo by Sarah Gish)

I now had the confidence to paint the car myself. As with my other cars, I paid many homages through its design. My brother Geoff had died at 43 years old, so I decorated the car with 43 hearts. Thirty-one formed a mandala shape on the hood, 12 were added to the front bumper, created by my dear friend MaryScott Hagle in memory of Sarah Crawford.

To my surprise and delight, LOVE IGNITES! became one of three first place winners in the painted car category of the 2022 Houston Art Car Parade.

Sarah Gish’s fifth and current art car, Iggy the Igniter (Photo by Sarah Gish)

The Comeback of Iggy

I totaled LOVE IGNITES! on August 5, 2022, the ninth anniversary of the death of Hubba Hubba — a coincidence I find ironic and symbolic. This led to the birth of Iggy the Igniter, which is still my car today.

I was able to rescue all 43 hearts from LOVE IGNITES! I incorporated these into my new design, which gives a nod to all of my previous cars. Iggy rode in her first Art Car Parade in 2023.

During my road trips in Hubba Hubba, I interviewed hundreds of people about how they ignite their life. This led me to write my “12 Ways to Ignite Your Life Daily,” which are at the center of all that I do. Those 12 Ways and 12 Words are written on Iggy’s car doors.

Circles displaying the 12 Ways & Words on Iggy the Igniter are part of the art car’s lessons. (Photo by Sarah Gish)

Iggy is more than just an art car. It’s a springboard for telling my brother’s story and my own journey with mental health. It shows how challenges can enrich your life, rather than disable it.

Creating art cars is an ensemble art form. When I make a piece of art to hang on a wall, there is less interaction than what happens in a parade. The community involved in making and driving my art cars truly ignites my heart. Being part of it is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. I’m very grateful to the people who express their creativity through automobiles, people who have made my city the art car mecca.

My California born and raised parents came to Texas because of bitter cold winters in Michigan where my dad taught German. The Lone Star State seemed like an odd choice for two young Berkeley grads, but they made their mark here in their own ways. When I look back on my art car life, I see my impact too.

It has been a perfect full circle for me to bring some of that California free spiritedness to my rides. I’m grateful that my creativity ignites lives and creates connections daily!

Sarah Gish’s mom and dad embraced Texas. (Photo by Connie Upton)

Author’s note: Sarah Gish is a longtime art car maker, writer and teacher. She is the owner of the arts business Gish Creative, publisher of the newsletter GISH PICKS: Curated Culture for Kids & Adults and founder of the IGNITE YOUR LIFE! art project.

The Orange Show’s 37th Annual Houston Art Car Parade Presented by Team Gillman rolls out this Saturday, April 13 at 2 pm For more information, go here

Update April 16: Congratulations to Sarah Gish for winning Houston Art Car Klub’s “Brother BrianBryan” Memorial Award at the 37th Annual Houston Art Car Parade! Despite recovering from recent shoulder surgery, Gish rode in the parade and captured a coveted trophy. Scroll through the gallery to see the heroic picture.

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