Art Car Artist Rolls into Vallejo

Man plans to build steam-powered punk art cars straight from the pages of Jules Verne novels.

Artist Shannon O’Hare steers a tea pot art car onto the streets of Vallejo, Calif., on March 9, 2012.

Shannon O’Hare was up to his ears in a tea pot… literally.

His ubiquitous captain hat poked out the opening of an oversized, driveable tea kettle as he tinkered away deep inside. Just after announcing the contraption wouldn’t work, he flipped a lever and the kettle lunged forward. O’Hare wildly maneuvered the contraption around the odd bits of scrap metal and steam-powered gadgets littering the yard of his new Vallejo art space, singing “I’m a little tea pot, short and stout.”

As O’Hare wheeled his tea pot out onto the wide, empty street in front of his shop, a neighbor stared at the spectacle as if a space ship had landed in her driveway. It’s easy to imagine a year from now, neighbors in this quiet industrial area wouldn’t even think twice if O’Hare swooped down riding a giant metal eagle, brandishing a flaming sword.

“It is quiet, civilized,” said O’Hare of Vallejo. “It is open to culture it is open to art.”

Economically challenged cities have historically opened their arms to artists. After recently emerging from bankruptcy, Vallejo is more challenged than most. But the vacant warehouses and storefronts offer abundant space at reasonable prices for artists like O’Hare.

This week, O’Hare packed up his vivid contraptions and moved from Oakland into a former auto shop in Vallejo, where he plans to build steam punk art cars straight from the pages of Jules Verne novels. He calls the new space, Obtainium Works.

“Obtainium is material you can obtain,” O’Hare said, his pointed goatee beaming over an artfully altered military coat. “It is basically the new word for recycled or repurposed.”

Although he just recently moved in, the yard of the studio is already covered in strange bits of “obtained” items, which O’Hare and his artist pals enlist in their fleet of strange vehicles, including a steam-powered car and a three-story self-propelled Victorian mansion called the Neverwas Haul.

O’Hare hopes to eventually offer community workshops and classes where high school kids from Vallejo can learn about building art cars.

“I feel this is a great opportunity to create an art space in an environment that isn’t completely hostile, isn’t at war with itself,” said O’Hare.

O’Hare and his artist pals already organize the annual Mad Hatter Tea Party and Carnival, a Vallejo celebration complete with an art car parade. O’Hare supplies most of the art cars. He hopes to eventually turn his studio into a piece of art itself, where every square inch is covered in imagination.

He’s encouraging his pals to ditch entrenched art colonies in Oakland and Berkeley, and give Vallejo a try.

“Actually Vallejo’s a beautiful city,” said artist David Wilson. “The downtown’s nice. There are some great restaurants. I haven’t seen anything bad about Vallejo.”

O’Hare flipped a switch on a steam-powered cart sending a torrent of steam rushing in all directions. He mounted the industrial beast, built from a squadron of disparate parts, and guided it onto the wide street adjoining his space. As the steam chugged with the rhythm of a sick locomotive, he flipped a harrowing U-turn and raced away.

A man pulled his convertible Mercedes to the side of the road to watch him pass. “You guys are having way too much fun,” he yelled.

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