The shape is the subject, the theme is the dream.
Island artist Chris Demarest’s series of stylistic models of vintage automobiles, several of which are on display through March in the upper lobby of the Bainbridge Public Library, may not please the hardcore gearheads of the world, but technical accuracy isn’t really the point.
“I’m not trying to recreate the car, I’m interpreting the car,” Demarest said. “But I also try to make sure it mechanically works, so the front wheels do turn in unison. Anything that matters — I mean a real car guy is going to look at it and say, ‘Where are the spark plugs?’”
Not all of them, though.
Several actual owners of the World War I-era vehicles that most interest Demarest, who readily provide him with photos for reference, are enthusiastic about his ongoing series.
“Ultimately, what I have in the end is something that will be a facsimile of it, but for anybody who knows the cars, they’ll get a kick out of it,” the artist said. “For anybody who doesn’t know what these cars are, I hope that the shapes are intriguing enough that they want to go check it out.”
Demarest, who moved to Bainbridge Island about two years ago, is currently working on his seventh car of the series. Ultimately, he said he’s shooting to craft 25 and planning a larger exhibition.
Each model takes about 30 to 40 hours to build, and is constructed from, well, it depends. Bamboo, ping pong balls, wooden thread spools, wire, a repurposed flask — anything workable and handy may well find it’s way beneath the hood of Demarest’s fanciful fleet.
“The detail has grown,” he said, “the original one was just a shell and even the Beast of Turin … there was no engine compartment.”
Demarest admits he’s not exactly a “car guy,” though he grew up watching Formula 1 and sometimes still does. It’s specifically the cars of the post-WWI years, mostly English and French, that fascinate him.
“A lot of them, they not only borrowed [airplane] engines, there’s actually a car that has a propeller,” he said. “It’s got a guard around the edges, but it’s like they chopped off the wings and chopped off the tail and put two more wheels on it and called it a car.
“What I see is a piece of sculpture,” he added. “When these guys, the owners of the vintage cars, are talking about, ‘Oh, it’s 2,800 liters and four cylinders,’ I’m like, ‘That’s just math and numbers.’”
Demarest is a previous Kitsap Regional Library artist in residence and renowned illustrator of children’s books who recently spent some time touring the country, showcasing a series of historical portraits based on World War II-era photographs. Locally, perhaps his most famous work is a 7-foot-2-inch large “identification tag” on which he painted a narrative mural depicting the Japanese American experience in the tumultuous years between the Pearl Harbor attack and the end of World War II. He stumbled upon his latest artistic focus after being couch-bound in the wake of hip surgery last year.
“That first couple of weeks, you can’t do anything,” he recalled. “So I’m sitting on the couch, reading, and I turn on the TV and I start watching YouTube and I run across these vintage car races.”
He’s made a BSA 3-Wheeler, a Morgan, the Fiat S76, so-called “Beast of Turin,” a Sénéchal and plans to tackle a Peugeot next.
Though he has accepted at least one commission to craft a specific car of that era, Demarest said he’s primarily undertaking this project for himself.
“If somebody said to me, ‘Would you do a 1965 Ford convertible?’ I’d say, ‘No, no I don’t want to,’” he laughed. “I’m no longer associated with [a] gallery in town. I just didn’t want to go that route and I don’t want to sell these.
“It doesn’t matter if it means something or not. That’s kind of been my message when I talk to people about this stuff: There’s nothing deep about it. I’m just having fun.”
And the response has been equally joyful, with a surprisingly diverse crowd seeming to be equally interested.
“It’s multi-generational,” Demarest said. “It’ll be somebody in their 80s who grew up with the originals to the granddaughter who is reading [about] it now, and I just think that’s fun. And if I can in my own way send a positive message then great.”