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The Art Car Fever

Downtown Houston

Living in Houston, there are several constants in this city which include art, traffic and diversity. With that, I'm sure you have witnessed an unusual car or two driving around, known as an “Art Car.” They are usually whimsical, expressive and most of all, creative. Their fan base has no limits, nor does their imagination. You will find all types, some expressing political views, to an everyday driver such as the pink hippopotamus.

Once a year, The Orange Show designates an area downtown for this community to showcase their labor of love, and you can witness over 250 of them “roll” in their unique glory. It’s a vibrant and free parade that Houston enjoys with open arms. People make a day of it by bringing out lawn chairs and watching each proud owner drive by.

With this, I have had the pleasure of meeting Cathey Graham Nickell, author of Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car. In this book, Cathey embraces the beauty of how I assume most have started their own art car—with one idea and one small object at a time.

Cathey connected with local illustrator, Bill Megenhardt, who helped her story come to life. You quickly see the artist’s attention to detail, the cross-hatching images, and how the pages slowly come to life by adding color as the story goes along. The story has such a relatable platform, packed with life lessons that cause young or old to walk away with a feel-good emotion. You’ll want to dive into something creative and expressive, realizing that there is still an inner-child in us all.

This book has literally been a vehicle that has touched many, whether it is directly or through the embracing and warm-receiving art car community. However, it seems that Cathey’s largest contribution has been to the 20-some visits (and counting) that she has made to local elementary schools since her book launch last year. Every author visit she makes is personalized for each individual school. Often, the schools embrace the theme by allowing children to build their own versions of an art car, encouraging creativity and individualism, while allowing the student to work solo or collectively. Her visits are usually accompanied by an actual art car, which lights up the students and churns their imagination. The kids are completely mesmerized by the size, the detail and the boldness of each art car. In her school presentation, Cathey also shares her joy for writing, from how she first started to write at an early age to how she later brainstormed the art car story idea. And, as I am a firm believer, mentors come in and out of our lives when we least expect it. I’m certain Cathey has motivated many children and adults to pursue their interest in writing or whatever creative vehicle they may be talented in or interested to pursue.

You can find her book through several methods: Amazon, Brazos Bookstore, Bering’s Hardware on Westheimer, or the Beer Can House; and it’s also available on her website I encourage you to read and subscribe to her blog, where you will find “21 Fun Facts About Me” listed. And without being a complete spoiler, my favorite fun fact about Cathey is the hospital “stay.”

Cathey Graham Nickell

Cathey Graham Nickell, author of Arthur Zarr's Amazing Art Car.

Students at St. Mark's Episcopal perform their own Art Car Parade where Cathey was the Grand Marshal.

Cathey's favorite art car is by Randy Blair's is called "A Little Bit of Nonsense".

Furthermore, Cathey and I had a chance to visit over coffee. Seeing her retell how this story was born shows the labor of love she has given this children’s book. Her loyalty even spans down to a beautiful tiffany-blue enamel car pendant necklace that her husband gave her from Tiffany's. We sat there for what seemed like only a few minutes, but I realized I could have sat there for an eternity listening to her enthusiasm. It was as if we were long-lost friends catching up. And quite honestly, my favorite part was going over the Q & A, which I have listed below:

Q: When did you start writing?

A: As soon as I could read and write! As a child, I would staple folded paper together to create a book, and I’d write and illustrate my own stories. I often gave these as gifts to my parents or siblings, and my mother saved them all. (Thanks, Mom!) I still have that large bin full of dozens and dozens of homemade books. One of my favorites I wrote as a child is called, “Susan and the Snail.” Probably the silliest one I wrote is called “The Handsome Guy.”

Q: How did you choose this subject?

A: It’s funny how the idea came to me. I don’t drive an art car myself, but I keep the back of my SUV covered with random bumper stickers. I was joking around with my teenage son, Will, one day while I was driving him to school, and I said, “I better drive well, because everyone knows me and my car due to all my bumper stickers. They’ll notice if I don’t drive properly.” Will deadpanned back to me, “Mom, no one remembers you or your car. You’re being weird.” Believe it or not, Will’s comment got me thinking: what would make a car memorable? And I immediately started daydreaming about art cars.

Q: Did you mull over the idea for sometime?

A: No! I immediately rushed home from carpooling that day and started writing. Not to sound overly dramatic, but I almost felt guided by some creative force. I knew I had to get this story written or I would burst. I express myself through writing, and this idea grabbed hold of me! I was so excited about it, and I spent the whole day writing that first early draft.

Q: You use an acorn in the book; what does it signify?

A: Arthur Zarr glues an acorn to the front of his car in a quirky moment of inspiration. At first, I thought of the acorn simply because it started with the letter “A.” I wanted my storybook character to add the objects to the car alphabetically, to appeal to children (and parents). Later, I started thinking more about what an acorn might symbolize. It falls from the mighty oak tree, and I’ve read that it signifies potential and strength. It’s very apropos that I chose an acorn, because I don’t think I knew my full creative possibilities until I wrote and produced this book. When I speak at schools, I tell students that my idea for the story came from something small—a bumper sticker. And likewise, Arthur Zarr’s art car began with something small, too—an acorn.

Q: Your greatest contribution?

A: It might sound corny, but I think my greatest contribution is my family. It’s a second marriage for my husband and I, and we have a blended family of four children. Three are grown, and one is still in high school. Merging so many different personalities into one home was not easy, but we made it work, and we have all learned to love each other and get along over time. Knowing that we’ve raised moral, kind, tolerant young adults makes me feel that my husband and I did something right.


Q: Your favorite art car?

A: I love all the art cars I see around town. Each artist puts so much of their heart and soul into their creations. But if I had to pick one, I would say it would be Randy Blair’s “A Little Bit of Nonsense,” which is completely covered with colorful glass objects and inspirational quotes. Plus, Roald Dahl is one of my absolute favorite authors, and the name of Randy’s car comes from a quote out of Dahl’s book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Randy’s is truly a one-of-a-kind art car, and I love it!


Q: Your biggest takeaway from this process?

A: I don’t think I realized how much I could accomplish by daring to try something new. I didn’t know how far it was going to take me or how many new friends I would make along the way. I never envisioned I would one day be publicly speaking to elementary school students at schools throughout Houston and beyond. So my takeaway is that I’ve learned to act on my creative ideas quickly! We’re all overly busy with jobs, children, household chores, and family obligations. But it’s okay to skip a load of laundry in order to explore an idea that might feel a little “outside the box.” It’s more than okay—it’s necessary.


Meeting Cathey and reading her book has motivated me to carry on with my own creative journey. I hope this inspires you in one way or another, or at least encourages you enough to get out and enjoy a beautiful day with the Art Car community this Saturday, April 8th at 2:00 pm. The flyer is attached.


The Impeccable Find

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