Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Bette, a button bedecked art car in Northfield August 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:45 PM
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MARY BARBOSA-JEREZ doesn’t mind if you touch her car. But I kept my hands off her 1989 Toyota Corolla Saturday afternoon in Northfield.

I simply didn’t feel comfortable touching a car that has a name—Bette—and is a work of art.

Allow me to backtrack for a minute. My husband and I had just said goodbye to friends we met for lunch when Randy tells me, “Look at that car.”

Wow, I would have stated “LOOK AT THAT CAR!” in bold-face, uppercase letters with an exclamation point.

This car, which is covered with buttons, stands out from any other parked along Division Street in downtown Northfield. Immediately, I pull out my camera, drop my camera bag onto the sidewalk and start circling the Corolla, snapping photos.

Pedestrian-stopping car, view 1

Passenger-side doors on pedestrian-stopping car.

Backside of pedestrian-stopping car

I figure if I linger long enough, the owner may just show up. After several false hopes—meaning I asked numerous passersby if they owned the vehicle—Mary arrives and informs me that this is her car, an “art car.”

I begin peppering Mary with questions and she is eager to answer them. She bought the car in 2007 and for the past year has been transforming it into a work of art. The St. Olaf College librarian says she is making a statement about saving things, reuse, consumption and accumulation.

“It’s deconstruction of our cultural obsession of automobiles,” she continues. For awhile this former Louisville, Kentucky, resident, who moved to Northfield two years ago, considered doing without an automobile. But she couldn’t and bought the Corolla for $800 from the car’s first and only owners and then named it Bette after a 90-year-old friend of theirs. Bette, she tells me, was an unusual woman who was well-traveled and lived into her 90s.

The name now seems perfectly fitting for this unusual button car.

Beautiful 21-year-old Bette, the art car

Mary initially bought 10 one-gallon bags of plain buttons from a Louisville fabric store that was cleaning out attic space to begin her art project. But since then, the buttons have come from friends and those (mostly women) who see her car.

“It has become like a quilt,” she says, as we examine the infinite buttons adhered with exterior silicone caulk. “It’s a way to meditate and contemplate about women’s lives.”

Buttons, buttons and more buttons beautify Bette.

One of the more unusual buttons is a deer button.

How many buttons? Mary doesn’t know. She knows, however, that it takes her one hour to affix buttons onto a six-by-six inch area. So progress is slow, hampered even more by Minnesota weather. While Mary owns a garage, the interior temperature fails to rise high enough for button adhesion in the winter.

That doesn’t discourage her, nor does the fact that “you lose buttons always.”

Mary has driven Bette between Northfield and Louisville many times and tells me that art cars are common in Louisville, but not so much in Minnesota.

She’s happy to talk about her project and the statement she’s making about turning an item associated with status into a piece of art.

Mary really doesn’t mind either if you touch her car. In fact, she is amused when a button falls off into an unsuspecting hand. “I’ll see them stick it in their pocket as they scuttle away,” she laughs.

But on this day I’m not touching Bette, just photographing her. And I’m thinking, out loud to Mary, that my family’s 1988 hail-pocked van might make a perfect art car.

On Bette's front, Mary placed one of the few buttons she has purchased, a handcrafted nursery rhyme button.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling