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Art Cartopia.
Futuristic Zephyr and Jet Car were built by a visiting artist who brought his own rivets from Wales.

Art Cartopia (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Trinidad, Colorado

"Anybody can make an Art Car," said Rodney Wood, director of Art Cartopia. It takes a special town, however, to give Art Cars a permanent parking space, and that town is Trinidad: an old mining camp that later gained notoriety as the site of America's first hippie commune, then as the "Sex Change Capital of the World," and more recently as "Weed Town, USA" because of its many marijuana dispensaries.

Art Cartopia.
EyeVan's eyeballs are hand-painted security camera domes.

Rodney, a teetotaler, said that the way he gets his kicks is to watch people gape in awe when they first step inside Art Cartopia. Its roster of car-tist creators reflect Rodney's "anybody" maxim, and include cops, kids, church groups, and old lady quilters. "We hardly get any pot people," said Rodney, and the few who visit seem more mesmerized by the attraction's "World's Smallest Art Car" -- a toy inside a donated bulletproof case -- than by the full-size vehicles.

Art Cartopia.
Art Cartopia director Rodney Wood at the wheel of Boney Whipman.

Art Cars are normal old trucks, cars, and SUVs modified into non-normal shapes or covered with glued-on bottle caps, pebbles, or anything else that's free and available. They first appeared in Houston in the mid-1980s, and now several major cities have annual Art Car parades. But the one in tiny Trinidad -- ArtoCade, which Rodney started in 2013 -- is the world's second largest. Its success spurred Rodney to want to showcase the cars year-round: not in a stuffy museum, but as a roadside attraction.

"People are so busy looking at their frickin' phones that you have to wake them up; make them smile," said Rodney. "You gotta smack 'em upside the head."

Art Cartopia's vehicles smack heads just by being parked outside its building along Interstate 25. There's a giant, grimacing hog ("Big Pig"); another covered in rubber insects ("Bugatti"); a third bulging with eyeballs ("EyeVan"). Passers-by can see vehicles topped with a giant human skeleton ("Boney Whipman"), an ambulatory dragon ("Phoenix"), and a sparkly armadillo ("Karmadillo"). It's a classic in-your-face-style display for a roadside attraction, a real population-sorter. Motorists either flee in fear, or they have to stop.

We know that you'll stop.

Walking inside Art Cartopia -- a building that formerly housed mining equipment -- leads to what Rodney calls "instant visual overload." There's "Stink-Bug," a VW beetle covered in 250,000 cigarette butts, and "Albert Canstein," a mashup of theoretical physics and crushed soda cans -- and one of three vehicles at Art Cartopia made by inmates at a local prison. "Chewbaru" is covered in false teeth and dental tools. "Earth, Wind, and Fire" has a built-in fountain, smoke machine, and flamethrower. "The Good Old Days," which took three years to complete, is entirely encased in stained glass.

Art Cartopia.
Control panel of the Phoenix dragon car includes switches to flap its wings and belch flames.

Art Cartopia.
Albert Canstein was built by inmates at a local prison.

Art Cars, said Rodney, are built with only creativity in mind. "It's not to make money or to be famous," he said. "It's, 'How crazy can we be?'"

Art Cartopia has a room filled with raw material -- bins of plastic toys, beads, wine corks, shotgun shells, etc. -- and the public is welcome to participate. "We're always getting new cars and making new cars," said Rodney. Visitors have helped to create several, including "Spellbound," with glued-on Scrabble tiles, and "Chalk-O-The-Town," covered in paint that people can draw on.

"Zephyr," a van turned into a rocket ship, has mysterious lettering that was in fact copied from a Korean restaurant menu (Rodney said that the idea was that some day someone from Korea would walk in and ask, "Why does that car have 'seafood kimchi' written on it?"). "Cardi Gras," covered in beads, was made by one of Art Cartopia's docents -- here they're called "'splainers" -- although she never reveals that to visitors. "Shattered Vanity," encrusted in cracked CDs, is so reflective that it can blind approaching drivers with their own headlights, so it can't be driven at night.

Art Cartopia.
Big Pig's richly detailed posterior is a favorite photo spot for visitors.

And that, according to Rodney, is what impresses visitors most about Art Cartopia -- the fact that all of its artworks were built to be driven. "If you can't drive it, it's just a float, not an Art Car," said Rodney, and he should know; he's been behind the wheel of most of them. "People will ask, 'Doesn't stuff fly off the car?'" -- but even if it does it isn't a problem, at least not for the car. "It's hard to permanently hurt anything in here," said Rodney. "Most Art Cars are made so you can fix 'em, and craftspeople are pretty ingenious. 'Hey, let's just glue more plastic superheroes on it.'"

So if you're in Trinidad and you see someone in a VW Beetle with skull headlights ("Re-InCarNation") or a car whose entire body has been carved into filigree with a blowtorch ("Lace Car"), it isn't a hallucination -- it's Rodney taking one of Art Cartopia's exhibits out for some exercise. "I get so used to people always looking, I forget," he said. "'Why is everybody staring at me? Oh, yeah. I'm driving a giant armadillo.'"

Art Cartopia

I-25 exit 15. Drive north along the frontage road on the east side of the freeway. Bear right onto CO-239, then an immediate left onto Freedom Rd to keep following the freeway. You'll soon see Art Cartopia on the right.
Closed permanently.
Donations appreciated.

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