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Nancy Josephson's Art Car With a Message

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Nancy Josephson drives a 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon that's a tribute to her father, a New Jersey physician who died three years ago. "This art car is lovingly dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Harris Josephson" is spelled out in ceramic beads on the front of the hood. "1925-1998. Father, father-in-law, grandpa, citizen of the world." She calls the car the Great Ride--the license plates read GRT RDE1.

A self-taught artist who lives in Hyde Park, Josephson has covered the car's surface with blue beads and swirls of tiny gold mirrors and renditions of family members' ideas of what constitutes a great ride. Her older sister, Anne, offered memories of childhood vacations spent waterskiing in New Hampshire, so there's a girl heading up a ski ramp on the hood. Her younger sister, Sue, suggested a trip she took to Alaska, where she found a stone shaped like a heart; the heart is depicted near the skier, along with a poem.

On one side of the car is a brother-in-law's dream of the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series that features a plastic figure of Carl Yastrzemski, the legendary left fielder and slugger. Josephson's husband, folk guitarist and violin dealer David Bromberg, wanted images of fiddles and watches, which he collects as a hobby. Her son picked lobsters, her daughter wanted toy animals.

The roof is shared by a beaded fiberglass cow, bear heads from a taxidermist, two serpents that seem to undulate in and out of the car, birds with wings that spin around like pinwheels, and a flower pot that Josephson often fills with plastic bouquets. The undercarriage is fitted with blue neon running lights.

The car attracts so much attention that Josephson, who's 46, knows that every errand she runs will take her 15 extra minutes. "Yesterday I'm at the grocery store and I'm loading bags into the car, when the guy next to me wants to know all about the car," she says. "He starts talking about September 11, and it makes him feel good to see my car, a celebratory thing. It was an emotional moment. The other night I pick up my son at O'Hare. He's coming home from college on a visit, and I am overjoyed to see him. When we return to the car I see a security car with its emergency lights flashing and five guys standing around. I'm so fucked, I think. But all they want is to know about the car.

"You're constantly a source of amusement, and putting yourself in a fanciful mode at all times can be stressful. If I'm in a cranky mood and I'm yelling at my kid and somebody comes up and asks, 'What's this about?' I can't be mean or short. Going to the store or picking up my kids, I can never just flip somebody off. Part of this is being attentive to people who are interested. The amount of time I get something out of an interaction is so much more than the time I'm tired of all this. With the car I can spread love and bring people into my world. It's the idea of being able to go beyond boundaries and be vocal about it--which was what my dad was about."

Ben Josephson grew up in a small town in North Carolina, where his parents ran a dry-goods store. "They were one of the few Jewish families in town, and my dad often felt like an outsider," says Josephson. "Being marginalized was something he was familiar with." She says he decided to become a doctor when he fought with the army in Europe during World War II. "He found he wanted to heal people," says Anne, now a Boston lawyer.

Ben practiced medicine in suburban New Jersey, first as a pediatrician and then as a family practitioner. "He was always speaking his mind," says Josephson. Once a week he and his wife, Irma, would drive their three girls into New York City searching for ethnic restaurants. He took Anne and Nancy to the civil rights march on Washington in 1963 and once had the family live on a welfare food budget for a week to see what it was like.

But family life wasn't idyllic, and after Irma died of cancer in 1970, relations between Ben and the children, particularly Nancy, took a bad turn. "He was a good doctor, but he was out of his element as a father," she says. "He did the best he could. But he was confused about his role, and we were all pretty freaked out at my mother's death. It was a rough go."

Josephson graduated from high school early, left home, and lost contact with her father for several years as she made her way as a singer and bass player. "But when my first kid was born, in 1983, I felt it was important for my father to be in my life," she says. She would visit him in New Jersey a couple of times a year. "You get older and more flexible. And my dad loved his grandchildren."

As the years passed, Ben became more engaged in life. "He was enthusiastic and curious," says Anne, "and when he was dealt bad cards he just moved on." He remarried and began to go on medical relief missions--to Indian reservations, to clinics in Appalachia, and then overseas with a variety of organizations, including Doctors Without Borders. "He didn't care who he worked for," says Josephson. "He just wanted to go." He went to Honduras, Haiti, China, Kurdistan, and Bosnia, where he helped airlift infants to safety in England. "There he was, totally in his element. He felt he was put on this earth to be a doctor, and he was having a great time in the process."

In the meantime Josephson had abandoned her bass for art. She was particularly drawn to decorating everyday things with beads, mirrors, and feathers. "Basically, I put stuff on other stuff," she says. She became best known among Chicago artists for making art shrines, and beginning in 1993 she did a series of art cars, notably a 35-passenger school bus with a fur interior and painted plastic lawn animals. "People gave me fur coats from their grandmas--beaver, rabbit, anything dead," she says. Now she's decorating "voodoo" plates and making sculptures that she exhibits at the Judy A. Saslow Gallery on West Superior.

Josephson hadn't given up singing. In 1992 she joined the Annettes, a women's gospel choir founded by Mary Ann Hayward that sang in south-side churches. "I was the only white, Jewish girl in the choir, but I found the experience immensely satisfying," she says. "Yes, I was singing about Jesus, but I looked at that in a broader spiritual sense." Five years later, the choir folded when Hayward moved away.

In late August of 1998 Ben was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. "My sisters and I were with him the week before he died," says Josephson. "We were talking about different things, and he kept coming back to his life having been a great ride." He died on September 5.

After his death, she claimed his station wagon and drove it back to Chicago. Over the next two and a half years she covered plastic panels with beads and various objects, then attached the panels to the car body with silicone caulk, which she calls the "art-car glue of choice."

Last summer she entered the Great Ride in art-car parades at the Indianapolis 500 and at a Baltimore arts festival organized by the American Visionary Art Museum, which showcases outsider art. "Nancy's car was hands above everybody else's," says Beth Secor, who coordinated the Baltimore parade. "She's a consummate draftsman, and she takes her time. She's obsessive-compulsive about all her cars--and I mean that in the best sense--and they are beautiful."

Josephson says her father wouldn't have liked the Great Ride. "He would be out of his mind at my having done this. He totally didn't get my art. But hey, that's too bad--it's my car now. And the way I see it, he taught me well. He felt that you should do what you want to do with joy, with liveliness--and have your kids in the mix. Teach that. Live that. That's his legacy. Just because he wasn't what I needed all the time doesn't mean he didn't influence who I am."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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