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Artist's work cuts at heart of car culture

PALMETTO

Jeremy Dean had to have the Hummer.

He saw the ad on Craigslist for the black '03 H2 a little more than a month ago and raced to the small lot with the big trucks near Orlando to buy it before another guy got there first.

Steve in sales at Rob Bruce Auto asked him if he wanted to take it for a test drive. No thanks. No need.

Jeremy wrote a check for $15,344 and rumbled off in the 6,466-pound, four-door, V-8 military machine turned sport utility vehicle.

Along I-4, then I-75, then around the bottom of the bay, he looked down at the tops of the cars he was trying not to hit and wondered what others were thinking.

He drove past billboards for boat shows and auctions for houses, for Goodwill and the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, and finally arrived here just south of the Sunshine Skyway and pulled into a waiting bay at Slicks Garage.

Where he then cut the Hummer in half.

• • •

He's a filmmaker and an artist. He's the second son of Christian missionaries who raised him in South and Central America. He's 33 years old, married with no children, and he and his wife right now live with his parents just down the street from Slicks.

When Jeremy was 7, his parents took him and his older brother, Sam, into a village in the Amazonian jungle to translate the Bible. The people there had swept the dirt before they arrived and cooked a monkey for their guests. The monkey had glistening flesh and fur still on its sides and looked like a roasted infant on the spit.

"You bless it, and you eat it, and you say thank you," David Dean told his boys.

Those with the least, the lesson went, often offer the most. Share what you have. More is not better.

Thank you.

Jeremy was an art major with a 4.0 GPA at Flagler College in St. Augustine. He spent eight years on a feature-length film on the racial strife in the '60s in that historic city. It was well-reviewed and distributed widely enough to have been sold in Walmart.

The Hummer is his latest project. It has been accepted into an art show this week in New York.

But it started a couple of years back, in Tarboro, N.C., where he was working on a documentary and kept hearing the older folks talk about Hoover carts.

Hoover carts?

• • •

Back in the Depression, especially in the South, people who had bought cars when times were good couldn't afford the gas when times turned bad. So they hacked off the fronts of those cars and hitched the backs to horses or mules and called them Hoover carts as a swipe at the president they blamed for the financial collapse.

Hoover carts happened because bloat didn't last.

Hummers happened, Jeremy said this month at Slicks Garage, because a lesson wasn't learned.

"If you don't know where you've been," he said, "you don't really know where you are.

"Bigger is better? Where has that gotten us?"

Prosperity, for a while, and for a long while, too — decades of the domestic auto industry's market dominance, lubed by federally funded speedy superhighways that let us (made us?) go faster, a commercial system built on savvy ad work and big-buck products bought with debt.

But the last gasp of that dominance was in the '80s and '90s and into the very first part of the 21st century with the popularity of the SUV, pitched deliberately by American auto marketers to customers' most shallow, selfish and isolationist impulses.

The last gasp of that last gasp was the Hummer.

"Artists," Jeremy said, "look for symbols."

The Hummer, its many critics cried, was America's arrogance and ignorance distilled into a singular, physical form, 9 miles a gallon and a false sense of security, an affront to the reality that this country has 5 percent of the people on the planet but uses 25 percent of the energy.

"An indictment of the American psyche on wheels," auto critic Dan Neil once wrote.

General Motors bought the brand in 1998.

It debuted the H2 not long after the Sept. 11 attacks. It sold and sold until sales sunk when gas prices soared and the rest of the economy tanked.

GM filed for bankruptcy protection last year. It shuttered Hummer last week. That happened only after it tried to sell it to a company in China and couldn't.

The Hummer Jeremy got was bought new for $50,000 in 2002 in Michigan and came to Florida shortly after that. It's had four owners. Its last owner had it two years until it was repossessed in the fall.

Rob Bruce Auto Sales picked it up at an auction of cars people could no longer afford.

• • •

Jeremy started by tinkering with small-scale models he bought at Toys "R" Us. That was more than a year ago. He turned those tiny Hummers into tiny horse carriages and showed them at an art show in Miami. That was in December.

He applied for arts grants to do it for real, but everyone said no. The economy. He used to wait tables to pay bills until the restaurant closed. The economy. His wife used to design sweaters for Betsey Johnson in New York until she got laid off. The economy.

They came back here from where they were living in Brooklyn and only had savings.

About $15,000.

Jeremy didn't ask Laura.

Laura asked Jeremy.

"The timing was right now," she said, "not a year from now."

His father says of course it's a gamble, but so is a farmer planting seeds. His brother says he's "creative, smart and brave." His mother says Slicks opened only weeks before he got the Hummer, and she says the ad on Craigslist appeared only days before he had to have it to make this project happen. She concludes that her prayers have been answered and that her Lord is opening doors for her son.

When he first brought the Hummer here, Jeremy had a short conversation, if only with himself, if only in his head.

I'm about to wreck a car I just bought for most all of the money I have.

But it's just money. It's just material. It's just a medium.

Some people spend $15,000 on granite countertops in their kitchen, and what's the point of that?

Plus, he said later, "I couldn't buy a bank and cut it in half."

So the music at Slicks was turned on, and turned up, heavy metal in this place that in 1917 began as a buggy shop before it became a Ford dealership before it became this, and Jeremy and the workers picked up grinders and plasma cutters and Sawzall saws. They unbolted bolts and unfastened plastics and stripped out the insides.

They took a day to tear it apart. They took a month to put it back together as something totally old and totally new. Totally different.

They flipped the hood and turned that into the bottom of the front of the carriage. They made sure it had 22-inch wheels with shiny chrome rims, and five 9-inch flat screens that will play a video about the project, and a champagne bucket where the steering wheel once was. And they built from scratch a front-end suspension made for a different form of fuel.

They took the H2 and turned it into 2H.

Two horses.

• • •

Today, in Central Park up in New York, a pair of white Percherons named Diesel and Duke are scheduled to pull people around in Jeremy Dean's satirical "CEO Stage Coach," a Great Recession-era adaptation of the Great Depression-era Hoover cart.

Then it will be at the prestigious Pulse Contemporary Art Fair during Armory Week in Manhattan.

Then who knows?

Maybe somebody will buy it. Maybe somebody will buy it for more than what he paid. Maybe somebody won't. His dealer lists it just shy of $100,000. The end of this project, Jeremy says, isn't so much up to him. Hopefully it will make people think. Hopefully it will make people talk.

One night last week, though, Jeremy stepped outside Slicks and stood in the dark under the stars and said three things.

"It's totally insane."

"It's going to be awesome."

"I have $60 left in my bank account."

News researchers Shirl Kennedy and Will Short Gorham contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Behind the scenes

To read more about Jeremy Dean's "CEO Stage Coach" project, go to

backtothefuturama.blogspot.com.

Artist's work cuts at heart of car culture 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 6:30pm]

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