Traveling Artist Hopes Converted 'Snowmobile' Will Double as Star Vehicle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people write resumes to get a job. Some even make a demonstration video.

But Susan Daughtry is making her bid for stardom by driving a 31-year old bread truck flocked in "snow" about 3,000 miles across the United States.

Daughtry, a 48-year-old sculptor from Alabama with fiery red hair and blue eyes, hopes to get UMO, the truck she lovingly calls an Unidentified Moving Object, into a movie or music video.

She began a two-year journey across the states last October from her hometown of Dothan, Ala. She bought the 1959 snub-nosed truck, abandoned in a bread company's lot, for $1,200 and transformed it into a moving sculpture.

For 10 months, she labored over the vehicle, ribbing its sides with PVC piping, sculpting a Styrofoam-like substance over its body, and applying 13 gallons of white paint and 321 tubes of caulking.

Daughtry gutted the insides, remolding the interior into bright white, living quarters, complete with a solar shower, single bed, portable kitchen, closet space, and zebra-patterned pillows. Instead of hauling a dresser on board, she fastened a row of white buckets to the wall to store belts, socks, makeup and other small items.

Then she took UMO on its maiden voyage. "I was a nervous wreck," she said. "I could just see all the stuff peeling off, but everything stayed on."

Sleeping for safety in police station parking lots, she inched her way across eight states, 200 miles a day. She earned her keep speaking at colleges and teaching children free-form sculpture, she said. She arrived in La Jolla six weeks ago to visit her daughter, and will give free sessions for children at the Artwalk downtown today and Sunday.

Daughtry and more than 400 other artists will participate in a two-day festival of music, dance, art and theater downtown on G Street between 5th Avenue and 13th Street.

Daughtry, who retired 10 years ago, said her journey started after she returned from an eight-year stint as an American expatriate living in Puerto Vallarta.

She returned to the United States after receiving a commission from an Atlanta museum. But she had always wanted to drive across the country, Daughtry said, surveying her surroundings from a parking space in La Jolla Village Square this week.

"I've always been a maverick," she said. "I was the oldest of three children, and my daddy wanted a boy. So I grew up with a fishing pole in one hand and a gun in the other."

Daughtry said she worked for 21 years, building up her architectural design and renovation company in Atlanta. "But this is the most 'out there' I've ever been. I'm vulnerable, interacting one to one with people. Riding inside my work of art, my perspective is different from if my work were in a gallery, and people were viewing it on a wall."

People who get close enough to UMO to see it either smile or laugh, said Daughtry.

"I think it's bloody wondrous," said Ken Capewell, an English visitor who happened by. "I love it. I just wish I had a camera."

The truck has helped break the ice with strangers, Daughtry said. And invariably the first question is, "What is the truck about?"

"Then, all of a sudden, they tell me where they're from," she said. "The truck, because of its humor and because it is so different, has just shot through all of these barriers people have.

"When I first started, I really didn't know what would take place. I just wanted to do it for the fun of it. It was also a way of reintroducing myself to my country and introducing my country to my work."

Daughtry said she provides a tablet on which people can write their comments. Then she stands back from the truck to observe their reaction. One wrote, "Brrrr, is it cold?" Another swore it was the "Jammingest Machine Ever."

They don't know if a male or female owns the truck, she said.

Many women are not interested in the truck. "If I have 50 people--25 men and 25 women--all 25 men will walk over, but probably 10, if that many, of the women would. I think it's because a vehicle is still thought of as a masculine object.

"I've identified three categories of people," she said. "There are people who identify with the vehicle. They oooh and ah, and they want to touch it, and they interact with it. There is no barrier and that's wonderful.

"Then I'll have people, when I pull up to a stop sign, they'll see it but they're afraid. They're full of fear of anything unusual or not the norm. They choose not to let it come into their space. I can tell they can see it, but they're afraid to show any type of emotion.

"Then, there's the third category of people who don't see it at all. They look straight at it, and they just don't see it."

Children react completely differently, she said: "Kids look at the truck, and their reaction is, 'I can't believe an adult did it.'

"It is real childlike, and that is the fun part of it. This is a work of art that's OK to touch."

Daughtry said she'll be leaving for Los Angeles in the next two weeks, but she has already had one big break.

Harrod Blank, the son of producer Les Blank who has done documentaries on such things as people with spaces between their front teeth, Cajun music, food, and musician Lightnin' Hopkins, plans to include UMO in a film on art cars called "Wild Wheels."

Usually art cars are fashioned out of Cadillacs or Volkswagen bugs, she said.

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