At 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, Reagan High School is quiet, all but abandoned. The only signs of life come from a cluster of half a dozen students huddled around a colorful car in a small tent in the back corner of the lot, the bejeweled vehicle positively glittering next to the school's banged-up dumpsters and storage. Pop music blares from a small Bluetooth radio as the kids—school uniforms exchanged for shorts and t-shirts, legs stained black with adhesive silicone—painstakingly sort through tiny rhinestones and snap quarter-sized gems off of chains with jewelry cutters. The students, along with supervising teacher Rebecca Bass, are in their final stretch in finishing this year’s art car: a towering tribute to British band Queen, complete with a life-sized figure of lead singer Freddie Mercury.
Curled around the sides and hood is a gleaming blue dragon from the song “Dragon Attack.” On the front: a golden, rhinestone-studded bicycle, from “Bicycle Race.” On the back of the care are large figurines of Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, made from a Styrofoam base, with glittery gold skin and with flowing beads for hair. They’re flanked by two equally bedazzled women, one in clear tribute to “Fat Bottom Girl.” A radio microphone on top is emblazoned with a golden “GAGA” for “Radio Gaga,” while what little space left on the car's side panels is devoted to musical instruments: a keyboard, guitar and glammed-up drum set.
Bass, an art teacher by trade, has overseen the creation of 31 cars since 1990. What began as a fun side project for the kids in her fine arts class has now become a career. Today, Bass is Houston Independent School District’s roaming Art Car Teacher, spearheading a yearly art car project at eight schools throughout the district, either as an after-school club or a full-out class.
She’s been at Reagan for two years now, building these cars with a sparse budget and with whatever time she and her students can get after school and on the weekends. And their work has clearly paid off: the Reagan High students have won first prize at the annual Art Car Parade contest in numerous years, including the prestigious Mayor's Cup at the 2015 parade. This year, they'll compete alongside more than 200 other entries when the 29th Annual Art Car Parade kicks off Saturday at 2 p.m.
It's not just about creating Styrofoam singers and glittery gold microphones for these students, Bass is quick to point out. “They are learning a lot about sculpture and design and color and all that stuff," she says, "but they’re learning about each other and themselves."
What's more, they're garnering positive attention for their work—especially after a big win, like last year's victory for the Reagan High Electric Ladyland car. “Then they have [reporters] that come and talk to them and ask them questions," says Bass. "They feel important; their self-esteem has jumped through the roof because, look at what a beautiful job they did!”
Her students are a mishmash of theater kids, art kids, and even those with no particular art experience at all. Some were friends beforehand, some didn’t know any of the others at all before starting. But the Art Car project has brought them all together.
“I didn’t want to come because I wasn’t very artistic—or I thought I wasn’t, at least," says 18-year-old senior Alexis Caradine, who found a new passion in the project. "My friend was like, ‘No, you can come help,’ and I ended up falling in love with art cars. It’s helped me discover new things about myself that I didn’t think I could do.”
Bass receives some funding from schools, but the bulk of their creations are community efforts. She buys the cars herself, then receives pounds and pounds of donations in scrapped auto parts, trashed jewelry, food for the kids while they work, hardware and labor: Former students, sometimes with babies in tow, sometimes with blowtorches, will stop by to chat, help with the cars, and visit with Bass again.
“These kids don’t get any credit; it’s just volunteering," Bass says. "I’ve got about 11 to 12 who have just busted their butts for this whole spring semester to make this gorgeous car. It’s delightful; it’s amazing to watch these kids grow.”
This year’s car looks like it suffered from a crossfire explosion between a jewelry shop and a hardware store. The surface is covered in doorknobs, rhinestones, locks, broken mirrors and mismatched car parts, but the bulk is made up of thousands upon thousands blue, yellow, red, gold and silver gems. To anyone else, it may seem too intricate to parse—but not to Bass.
She knows which students worked on each section of the car, and points each out with pride, showing that Noelle Riall worked on this section all by herself, or recalling with ease a student who graduated 16 years ago. Her students, in response, are quick to emphasize their own appreciation for their instructor. “Ms. Bass is awesome!” several yell out in unison, before asking her if they could shout her name during the parade. Bass’ slightly embarrassed, “No, no,” is met with a eruption of chanting: “Ms. Bass! Ms. Bass!"
A grinning Bass quickly changes the subject—back to her kids. “By the end of the [parade] weekend, many of these students have been interviewed a dozen times, and they’re eloquent. They’ve got it down. They can talk about the whole (car). You look at them and they’re just…” Bass’s voice falters for a moment. “They’re grown-up now.”
29th Annual Art Cart Parade, Saturday, April 9. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (parade begins at 2 p.m.) Free. thehoustonartcarparade.com