Keith Moss emerges from the garden of his north Coconut Grove home carrying a hose. "Not many people water their car," he says, while drenching more than twenty species of herbs, flowers, vines, and weeds that completely cover his 1980 Toyota Corolla station wagon.
Plants such as mallow, Moses in the bulrushes, and bird-excrement-fertilized Brazilian pepper sprout from the Mossmobile. Broccoli creeps from its tailpipe and a beanstalk entwines the radio antenna. There are an irrigation system and a fountain made from foam insulation and glass bottles on the roof. On the dashboard rubber frogs, iguanas, flies, and mosquitoes surround a rubber nun and miniature statues of Saint Lazarus, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary.
Moss gets in the car, pulls out of his driveway, and pilots his rolling masterpiece west on SW 24th Street. A bus full of elementary-school students passes. The kids stick their heads out the windows, wave, and yell, "Cool car!" Moss responds with a hearty "Yee-haw!" Then he hits the rear-defroster switch, which is attached to a pump that connects to a water tank. The children stare in amazement as a lawn sprinkler shoots a geyser fifteen feet into the air.
As Moss passes CocoWalk, a tourist points a video camera. From Café Tu Tu Tango's upstairs veranda, four men and women cheer and salute with beers. "After you drive this for a while, it's hard to get back into a regular car," muses the 42-year-old graphic designer. "Nobody waves, nobody smiles; it's just no fun." At a stoplight a couple starts to cross the street hastily. They are staring straight ahead. When they notice the car, their jaws drop. Moss turns on the sprinkler and the two laugh hysterically.
At another intersection a flower vendor on a bike requests a little water for his merchandise; Moss hits the switch. In gratitude the vendor places five red and pink roses around the foam fountain. Then a blue minivan pulls up. The children inside press their faces against its tinted windows. "I often wonder, of all the people that wave and smile, how many of them at their dinner table that night say, 'You won't believe what I saw today, a car with plants growing on it,'" Moss says.
Moss and his organic auto, which looks like a giant chia pet on wheels, are at the forefront of South Florida's burgeoning art-car scene. In just the past few months he has launched a Web page displaying the green hot rod, held a question-and-answer session about it for preschoolers at Florida International University's Children's Creative Learning Center, and shown it at a Coconut Grove garden tour. Judy Mangasarian, a Grove activist, first saw Moss's car while driving along Bird Road. "I thought, Oh my gosh! This guy is a throwback to the hippie era," Mangasarian exclaims. "Things were just blooming everywhere. It was a real eye opener; makes you realize gardening doesn't have to be all drudgery."
In August Moss won first place at an art-car parade that kicked off the grand opening of the Key West Customs House museum. No one knows for sure when the art-car trend began. People have been decorating their wheels for centuries, says art-car expert Bryan Taylor. For the past twenty years, BMW has even commissioned one artist per year (Andy Warhol once participated) to transform the German automobile into a rolling showpiece.
The movement got a jump start in 1984, when aficionados started a parade. These days an estimated 300 art cars show up for the annual event. Participants have included a moosemobile with antlers mounted on top, a van covered with 1705 cameras, and a jalopy overlaid with Day-Glo yo-yos. There are also art-car festivals in St. Louis, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Fanning the flames of the phenomenon are dozens of art-car Websites, nationwide media coverage from Smithsonian magazine to CNN, and a cult film and companion book by artist Harrod Blank called Wild Wheels. In 1997 a Blank-produced documentary, Driving the Dream, aired on a television show called National Geographic Explorer. In 1998 the Art Car Museum, also known as Garage Mahal, opened in Houston.
Moss was ten years old in 1967, when he and his sister transformed a beat-up Renault from their father's used-car lot into a hippiemobile. They painted purple peace signs and Day-Glo flowers on the vehicle. Thirty years later, while staring at a vine-covered fence, the horticulturist and eccentric thought, Wouldn't it be cool to have this grow on a car? So in December 1998, spurred by memories of his boyhood dabbling, dreams of the art-car parade, and the desire to stir things up a bit, Moss purchased his neighbor's crumbling Toyota for $200 and transformed it. "As a graphic artist I never see people's reaction to my work," Moss says. "As an art-car driver I get a response right away. It's instant gratification. I guess I'm a performer at heart."
With the help of his wife Marsi McKee and friends who donated plants and creative input, Moss began farming on four wheels. It took some experimenting before the vehicle became organic, though. At first, using screws and an electric drill, Moss attached chicken wire to the car. Then he attached tree branches and plant stems. But after a few days the branches were dry. "I became concerned the car might be a fire hazard," Moss says. Then he tried stuffing wet newspapers under the wiring and drove in the Grove's King Mango Strut. "Everybody just thought it was a lot of fun," Moss remembers. "We'd wet people with the sprinkler. Neighbors came out and cheered for us."
When the rest of the plants died, Moss designed a plan to sustain plant life on the car. He bought twelve cubic feet of Florida Everglades sphagnum moss, crammed it under the chicken wire, and sprinkled it with seeds. Within a week sunflower, rye, and millet sprouted. Today, among the daisies, moonvine, mint, and elephant ears, there are an American flag, two pink flamingos, and plastic alligators.
In the past year police have stopped Moss five times on his way to work at FIU and during weekend excursions to South Beach and through the Grove. But he has never been fined. "They just ask me to trim around the mirrors, tail lights, and license plate," Moss relates. "They've all been real good sports. They just wave when they see me. Some of them even shoot the peace sign."
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FIU police lieutenant Peter Canino says Moss's mode of transportation adds spirit to the road and the campus. "It provokes students' thinking," Canino comments. "When I first saw it, I was transported to Key West, a place where people actually use their right to freedom of expression."
Some motorists have even devised a hand sign to urge Moss to activate the sprinkler: a twirling of the index finger. "Keith is the kind of guy who can take what most people regard as junk and turn it into art," says friend and co-worker Todd Ellenberg. "It's neat how he combines technology with something natural."