Artist Behind Coolest Car Sculptures Ever Faces Life's Greatest Challenge

Hoop, a Warhol insider, copes with cancer as he drives new art

Hoop passed away the morning of September 22, 2011, shortly after this article originally ran. His cars continue to be an inspiration with their intricate artistry and unabashed celebration of life.

Part electric kool-aid-acid-test trippiness, part automotive reinvention, the gutsy style that artist Hoop (real name: Stephen Douglas Hooper) employs has allowed him to take car design to the next level for decades.

He's decked out his Fiat 850 Spyder "canvertible" in soda cans. He's put fur and sequins on a 1941 Packard Hearse. He's rigged the rear of a VW bug to a BMW Isetta and painted it all psychedelic.

But the New Jersey-based sculptor and Warhol-circle insider has hit a major roadblock: cancer.

At 64, he's retreated into his esoteric and eccentric work, increasing the verve and liveliness of his creations. His pieces, which were recently featured in the film "Automorphosis," have given him solace. But can manipulating the bodies of cars bring him relief even as his own body breaks down?

On a recent visit to his house in North Jersey--on a quiet suburban family street--Hoop seemed to cut a stark contrast to the surroundings. His bevy of cars lining the street are an insane blast of color and texture. It's the block on which he lived as a child, and he moved back permanently in 2002 when his mother passed away. It gives him more space to lay out his assets--some even in the backyard. The scene takes that Southern trope of rusty "lawn cars" to a brilliant level.

Taking after Warhol

Hoop self-inflates his image in a way that is endearing. He said he saw an opening when Warhol and Dali died, because the average person probably now can't name a major living artist.

"I've stepped into the throne room of the art world and tried to take over," he deadpans.

He even interjects his sentences with personal brand-promoting neologisms: "anyhoop..."

But the put-on cult of personality is somewhat warranted. It's not atypical for passers-by to stop and make conversation with the artist. They'll snap photos on their cameras or cell phones. He has a large following and takes automotive restoration up a notch: it's nothing short of car revivification, and just twenty minutes from the Lincoln tunnel.

Though Hoop's style may mark him as an iconoclast, his use of the automotive medium actually stemmed from his compliance to the law.

"I always wanted to have artwork on the street, so a lot of my friends in the olden days...the East Village days, were graffiti artists. So they're painting on a wall, they're painting on a subway car: Keith Herring or Basquiat. And I decided all that was illegal. So, I decided just to paint my car. And then I started adding things to the car. And then I started doing themes to the car."

Crash, Daze, Score, Chico--those were the East Village artists vandalizing the neighborhood as they beautified the grunge. Still, Hoop is an obedient deviant. In the East Village, he had a little BMW Isetta (a BMW-produced mini-car built on the platform of a motorcycle and sold in the 1950s) that haphazardly caught some attention. "Some woman started chasing me down the street," he said. "I thought she was a nut. But I got stopped at a light."

She invited him to a car art event in the East Village at a club called 8BC, and got written up in The Village Voice. Encouraged, he continued.

View Gallery: Hoop's Crazy Art Cars

Car Fur

The little car that held BMW afloat after the post-war period, selling by the thousands, gave Hoop his artistic buoyancy. And if Picasso had his Blue Period, Hoop had his Furry Spell: he started covering his cars with animals pelts of all kinds.

He discovered the garment district in New York and scavenged its bounty for the perfect adornment--colorful, reflective in sunlight. Animal print is his go-to.

"Whatever strikes my fancy," he said, leaning on his Music Mobile.

He'll throw flowers on the fenders and engage in various machinations: gluing, slicing, banging.

The mechanical stuff has never been an issue. When he was 17, he'd buy a $100 car and never had any money much to fix it. Because he couldn't pay a mechanic to do it, it was trial by fire. It was teenage boy gumption--the car passion of a red-blooded American male.

His father was a refrigeration engineer, so he had a lot of expertise in intricate craft. But somewhere in the gene pool, the automotive history is also deeply vested. In the 1930s, his paternal grandfather operated a gas station. His brother had a gas station in the 1960s--a built-in fraternal consultant.

Mobile art is public art

The stylings aside, Hoop's art is so outlandish because of its confrontational manner: mobile art is public art. It's out in the open, not stationary on a wall.

"I've had lots of museum shows and gallery shows, and this and that," he said, "but that's limited for what people can see, because a lot of people don't go into museums or they don't go into galleries."

This is more of an in-your-face democratic type of art.

"I'm in the city and there are thousands of people on the street," he said. "All I have to do is park on the corner and nowadays everybody's got a camera. You get a lot of attention. You get a lot of feedback. You get a lot of thumbs up. You get the Hoop sign."

The 1941 Packard Hearse, now rigged out in Factory Party frivolity as a limo, epitomizes Hoop's capacity for reinvention.

"The old hearse in the olden days when it was detectable as a hearse, people would be a little more standoffish," he said. "But since I changed the appearance and made it look different. people don't even know it's a hearse, they're more accepting. They'll go over and touch it. Feel the fur."

A daisy yellow King Midget sits in his driveway--waiting to be recreated, beckoning Hoop away from the worries of his sickness.

"Sometimes I'm up; sometimes I'm down," he said. "Sometimes the cars, my artwork, give me inspiration to keep going. It can be rather tiring at times, but it gives me a goal where I want to do one more thing. I want to do one more thing..."

View Gallery: Hoop's Crazy Art Cars

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