In the hands of Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran, or Brian Setzer my Gretsch hollow body electric guitar could move your feet and sway your soul. In my hands it mostly irritates my neighbors. While I can accost it for hours at a time—and experience great satisfaction in doing so—I appreciate its aesthetics as much as its ability to sing a horn-inspired Rockabilly riff, mourn with creamy blues, or wrap country twang around a cold bottle of beer. If I never master Scotty Moore’s "That's All Right" solo—and I never will—the guitar provides me joy visually and the encouragement to push through those painful bar chords. When frustration dulls my enthusiasm, the guitar’s gloss finish coos from the corner of my living room until I take it back in my hands. It is both functional and art. Had I purchased a typical starter guitar it would have quickly decorated a shelf at Goodwill or functioned only to displace dirt in a landfill.
Let’s pause to define functional art:
1. a useable object or space that evokes an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual reaction.
“The Piper Cub has endeared itself to generations of pilots, achieving the status of functional art.”
Functional art resides in my garage as well. The detritus of a workday dissolves as I roll a Triumph-badged sculpture through the dusty spear of light that slashes through my garage most evenings. I push the mixed-media form into summer’s lengthening shadows where my right thumb converts its feminine curves into transportation. Movement—not just motion—follows. My physical body moves over the road while my spirit moves to places beyond the reach of ordinary vehicles. While I ride the writing portion of my brain outruns the memory portion. Inspiring thoughts and superbly crafted prose live briefly in the synapses of my brain before being consumed by the next. None, however, are wasted. They are nutrients for my spirit—created, consumed, and converted to an improved outlook, better health, and a sense of living, not just life. My 1996 Grand Cherokee, as much as I appreciate it, has never inspired an epiphany.
A British sports car that only marks time under a quilted cover is not functional art—it is a damn shame. I know this because as I push the motorcycle past my Triumph TR6—snuggled under its cover—I think, “That’s a damn shame.” Similarly, a classic motorcycle regarded as cheap transportation is not functional art if it only transports the owner’s body. By my definition functional art does not need to move, but it must move the portion of your body that cannot be weighed, measured, or X-rayed to a place that cannot be plotted on a map. Functional art does more than hang silently on a wall or sit motionless on a shelf awaiting an appreciative glance and the tickle of a feather duster.
A space can be functional art. Great architects know a successful space is not defined by size, materials, or cost, but by the positive effect it has on the people who experience it. I have felt cold and empty in grand spaces of stone and marble: the soaring ceilings and impressive square footage lacked human engagement. I stepped into a Bowlus Road Chief trailer—less than 100 square feet of polished aluminum, stainless steel, and arching, blonde maple—and was immediately transported to the dining car of a 1960’s California Zephyr, the first class cabin of a Lockheed Constellation, and the possibility of living the simple life I dream of. It stimulated every sense and spontaneously ignited my creative urges. The Road Chief moved me while it sat still. When great architecture meets great engineering their child is an object that is both useful and inspiring.
During my teens and twenties purchase decisions were predicated on manufacturer's specifications as much as budget and need. Stereo speakers (all the better if they were defined as “studio monitors”) were selected on frequency response. Amplifiers were judged by total harmonic distortion. Tires were chosen for their speed rating. The cold numbers gave me bragging rights but had no real value. Today, digital cameras produce 18-megapixel images that are mostly viewed on 5-inch screens. The real value of “things” doesn’t come from engineering specifications but from how we interact with them, and they with us.
During my late twenties and thirties, price dictated purchase decisions. There were careers to build, children to raise and, if we were to participate in the American Dream, ever-larger houses to purchase and remodel. Function trumped form, art bowed to budget. To prove this, I held title to a succession of used vehicles including a Chevy conversion van, Ford Aerostar, Dodge Grand Caravan, and Dodge Dynasty. Speakers were chosen by sale price, amplifiers from my teens remained in service, and tires were often bald. The American Dream to have more had resulted in less. Less time. Less living.
The bulk of my fourth decade was a period of change. I craved less so I could enjoy more. The fewer things I owned, the fewer things owned me. My cameras got more use and my television got less. My computer was used more for writing and less for spreadsheets. Three-string guitars I crafted from cigar boxes displaced original oil paintings from my walls. A stranger’s static brush strokes were no match for my aromatic, handcrafted cigar box guitars that also fill my ears with handcrafted music. I found more joy in creating than acquiring.
As my fifth decade dawns I dream of selling my 900 square foot house and living in a space half that size. Its value won’t come from the architectural specifications or its convenience to shopping and schools, but from the immeasurable impact it has on that thing we call a soul. Maybe my home will be a Bowlus Road Chief with no permanent address. I’ll replace my neighbors at will. I won’t have to wait for October to color, briefly, the static landscape outside a living room window. I will immerse myself in fall color and follow it for weeks as it creeps south. And there, in the south, I may remain, beyond winter’s soul-depleting grasp, living a life stripped bare of things but filled with art that both functions and inspires.
This essay originally appeared on the Bowlus Road Chief website.