Rebecca Bass, Profile of an Artcar Maven
By Ford Gunter, Posted on 2012-02-28
Rebecca Bass wasn’t always the focal point of Art Car: The Movie. When we set out to make a documentary on artcars and the people who build them, she was but one face in a large, colorful crowd.
The kids helped. At the time we came into Rebecca’s life, cameras rolling, she was in her last year as an art teacher at Sam Houston Math & Technical High School, a doozy of a campus that had already been shuttered once in its history. Working with a class made up almost entirely of low income, first- or second-generation immigrant Latino kids, she was trying to bring art into a place where art didn’t really exist.
Kind of like what artcars do.
She was trying to bring art into a place where art didn’t really exist
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how her story emerged as the dominant one in our film. Her professional mission almost directly mirrored her personal passion: Create something beautiful and share it.
It wasn’t until much later — in filming and, perhaps even more, in editing — that we started to understand how Modern Day Rebecca Bass came to be, from what version of Back In The Day Rebecca Bass she sprang. Or what versions she borrowed from, carried forward, and what versions she left behind, for better or worse.
If I told you of an artist reared by a military family in Texas oil country, you’d guess that our hero left home like it was on fire and dredged up her past only to channel it into tormented art. And the seeds were definitely in place for this type of tree. Rebecca was raised in Midland by an Air Force father and a strict mother who was in the Daughters of the American Revolution. As a child, Rebecca joined the Children of the American Revolution. Her fourth grade teacher also taught George W. Bush.
“I was a quiet child, very shy,” she says. “I was a wallflower. Insecure.”
Both Rebecca’s grandfathers served in the Armed Services, and she had one uncle in the Navy and two more in the Army. One of those developed the elite Ranger program and was, at the time of his death, the most decorated soldier in the Army. He was shot down twice in Vietnam and held as a POW once.
But she doesn’t reject that part of her past. Far from it.
“He had the greatest stories,” she says, wistfully. “He would tell us the greatest stories…”
Rebecca’s parents married young and “on a whim,” she says, and settled in Midland, where her father worked for Gulf Oil for 37 years.
“He was a land man, talking people out of their land,” she says. “He was really fair, well-known. We weren’t wealthy but he was honest.”
As part of the bigger machine, her father was tasked with buying the mineral rights to people’s land for less than they were worth, but, as she says, “They liked him.”
It was in the editing bay, probably late at night, when it dawned on me the two words best to describe Rebecca: tough love.
This straight-shooting, the-best-way-to-deliver-bad-news-is-quickly-and-honestly mindset, along with the ingrained Don’t Tread On Me mentality imbued from life in a military family, are what I believe to be the key factors in what make Rebecca the best teacher Houston Independent School District probably never knew it had.
It was in the editing bay, probably late at night and stopped up on cat dander, when it dawned on me the two words best to describe Rebecca: tough love. Tough and love. Tough, we’ve covered the roots of, but that’s only one half of her dichotomy. Love comes next.
Despite a history that is more easily associated with rigid families, her parents provided a house that encouraged artistic exploration, not stifled it. Rebecca’s older brother was a musical prodigy from the age of 5 and earns a handsome living as a musician in Austin to this day, so the idea of great artistic success was a fundamental element of her childhood.
“My brother was real outgoing — smart and perfect,” she says. “He was playing piano with both hands at 5, and wrote his first concerto when he was 10.”
Much more introverted than her brother, Rebecca spent most of her time with horses or in her room, but she was always into art, and her parents always encouraged her.
“I could do anything I wanted to my wall in high school,” she says.
And to some extent, the rest of the house as well, purposefully or otherwise.
“I had the first waterbed in Midland,” Rebecca says. “It exploded on the second floor and went into the carpet and then down the walls of the garage — red streaks. My dad didn’t even paint over it. Said he wanted to remember this.”
My mother was into astrology and the metaphysical stuff, but she ate Pop Tarts.
Rebecca’s mother was the undisputed disciplinarian of the family, but not in the conventional sense. A natural vagabond, her mom lived in 42 states in her life, sometimes for as little as two weeks. She was more “on the freethinking side” of neighbors concerned with keeping up with the Joneses at a time when that phrase was taking on a whole new meaning at the dawn of advertising and mass consumerism.
“One time I came home and she was sleeping under this pyramid that my dad had built over the bed,” Rebecca says. “My mother was into astrology and the metaphysical stuff, but she ate Pop Tarts.”
One uncle, El Jean, lived in Coleman, a town that may well be the geographic center of Texas. In this town, El Jean lived on top of a hill, in a tugboat he brought down from Lake Erie.
“I come from a family of weirdos,” Rebecca says.
And from here stems the latter, the love. In the Bass family, anything was fair game. One day, the garage may be red. The next day, your war hero uncle might come out of the closet, and you know what? We still love him, just like we still love you. Make no mistake, though. Rebecca is closer to cowgirl than hippie. She owns a gun, but she’d rather paint the trigger than pull it.
Rebecca studied art at North Texas State (now University of North Texas) without ever having stepped foot on campus.
“I didn’t know anything about the school, but my little boyfriend went there,” she says. “Women didn’t really go to school but I had visions of being this famous artist.”
A year later she was married, and a semester after that she dropped out.
“It was a rat hole,” Rebecca says, somewhat fondly. “The toilet fell through the floor while I was sitting on it."
“He got fired after the honeymoon,” Rebecca says. “I had three jobs and went to school; he couldn’t find a job. It was 1974 and times were tough.”
The building boom in Houston brought them south December of 1974 and they rented a house on Yupon in Montrose for $75 a month.
“It was a rat hole,” Rebecca says, somewhat fondly. “The toilet fell through the floor while I was sitting on it. We lived there eight years with no AC, but I grew all my own food, made clothes there. My son was born there.”
If Rebecca learned rugged tolerance in Midland, she realized in Houston her inability to sit still. She transferred to University of Houston-Clear Lake to study behavioral sciences, audited other classes, joined a dance team and started hanging around the Lawndale Art Annex on UH’s main campus, where she first fell in with what would be become the artcar crowd.
“I’ve always been a worker,” she says. “I’ve never been unemployed.”
“I was a foster mom when I was 22,” she says. “It was a weird time in Houston, all these runaways. There were no services. I had four of them for about six months at a time.”
To back this up, she reveals that she taught belly-dancing classes three weeks after her son’s birth. She also started counseling at a halfway house for runaways, bringing her up to about 60 hours a week of work, plus classes. And we’re not done.
“I was a foster mom when I was 22,” she says. “It was a weird time in Houston, all these runaways. There were no services. I had four of them for about six months at a time.”
It’s no secret that Rebecca is divorced, and this is the time in her life when things began to fall apart with David, the man she’d dated since she was 15. The traditional roles of marriage, cooking and cleaning, were not for her.
“I don’t think I really know how to be married,” she says, speaking in the present tense about something in the past. “We were kids. If we had grown up and then met each other it would have been different. We’re still friends. When my father died ten years ago and David found out about it, I was pretty destroyed because my dad and I were good friends. David drove 18 hours to the funeral.”
At 29 and freshly divorced, Rebecca thought it time for a career change.
“I had been a social worker for eight years, but I had a kid and I wanted to have that freedom, summers, my kid’s schedule,” she says. “At 29 I started teaching. I got a job, got a house and put my son in day care in one week.”
Rebecca figured teaching would be the perfect combination of social work and “that whole art thing,” which she desperately missed. But that didn’t come immediately.
After a few years on the job and comfortable with “a great principal,” Rebecca floated the idea of building an artcar with her class.
“My first job I taught English and reading,” she says. “In HISD back then if you had a teaching certificate they just put you anywhere.”
It wasn’t until 1985, at Edison Middle School, that Ms. Bass first taught art. Throughout this time, Rebecca was active with the Urban Animals, a roller skating troupe that roamed the empty streets and parking garages of downtown Houston and provided sanctuary to many future artcar artists. After a few years on the job and comfortable with “a great principal,” Rebecca floated the idea of building an artcar with her class.
“I like community art projects,” she says. “It goes back to that social work thing.”
Her principal jumped on it and helped take the doors off the school so she could drive the Volkswagen they’d just bought for $100 down the hall and into her classroom. They completed the car in just a couple of weeks.
“I just wanted them to experience that parade, and, son of a bitch, we won. We won the Mayor’s Cup,” she says. “As soon as we were in that parade, the kids are like bigger than life, that moment. At the time I didn’t know anything. There may have been 60 cars but it seemed like a huge parade, and everybody’s talking to my kids. It was a big deal.”
Houston, 1990’s and 2000’s:
That car, The Body Shoppe, was the first of many Mayor’s Cups for Rebecca and her classes. Twenty-plus years and twenty-plus cars later, Rebecca is known throughout the artcar world, and has cars in museums as far away as Kuala Lumpur. The guy in charge of purchasing for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! keeps and eye on her entries in the Houston ArtCar Parade every year. She’s been talking to local media, national television shows and film crews for years. The notoriety, while seasonal and regional, has not come naturally. Nor has it gone unappreciated.
“I’ve always been that wallflower, so it’s overwhelming,” Rebecca says. “It’s really helped me with my insecurities, with my self-esteem. It sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m just doing my job.”
And her intentions are pure.
“I love seeing the kids, when they get that attention,” she says. “They stand up a little straighter. The way their parents treat them a little bit different.”
“One student texted me that I had changed her life. We butted heads the entire time; we didn’t even like each other.”
Not all of Rebecca’s students are success stories, but many are still involved in her life to some degree, including one, Julian Luna, who is an art student at UH and has built several artcars of his own. Another, Lindsey Lacombe Tichi, is an art teacher at Heights High School who builds artcars with her classes.
“Every year I really see a difference in the kid, and maybe not immediately. Sometimes it’s four or five years down the road that I see them,” Rebecca says. “One student texted me that I had changed her life. We butted heads the entire time; we didn’t even like each other.”
Central to her Tough Love ethos is a firm belief that educators have gone soft.
“Teaching is more liberal now than it used to be,” she says. “The pendulum has swung too far. We’re all ‘poor little children’ too much. We’re not letting them have responsibility for their actions… You never know what’s going to make a difference in a kid’s life. They need a little structure. Then they need to break the rules a little bit.”
When Rebecca was a teenager, her mother helped her wrap (toilet paper) a house, demonstrating the acknowledgment from power that the subjects of a system need a little freedom within that system.
“Then I had a little more respect for my mom,” she says. “You can either sit on top of your kid forever and ever, or you let them have some freedoms when they’re ready for it.”
“Second semester you can trust them. I can bring out the welder and illegally teach them how to weld"
Nothing encapsulates this quite like an artcar class, which is wholly dependent on the participation of kids that, in Rebecca’s classes, aren’t exactly predispositioned to help.
“First semester they’re always rigid, then they get comfy,” Rebecca says. “Second semester you can trust them. I can bring out the welder and illegally teach them how to weld, and they don’t say anything to anybody, then you start gaining their trust and their respect. Then you become that little family unit.”
Since Art Car: The Movie screened in November, Rebecca says she’s been stopped in the street a few times, and loves getting recognition for something she would have done anyway. She still laughs about the day the cameras stayed with her for 16 straight hours, from her predawn wake-up call to her late-night supply shopping run, which is my favorite part of the film, making what comes next a little extra sweet.
“I felt like you got it, you got what I go through,” she says. “All these years people thought I’d win the prize because I had worker bees and I had this little idea and I’d just sit back on my throne.”
The film’s narrative is built around Rebecca’s class building an artcar and trying to win the Mayor’s Cup, a prize many of her classes have won, and this competitive element has not only been divisive within the artcar community for years, but also provided a storyline that was low-hanging fruit for many of the film’s most vocal critics.
It’s true that the film’s narrative is built around Rebecca’s class building an artcar and trying to win the Mayor’s Cup, a prize many of her classes have won, and this competitive element has not only been divisive within the artcar community for years, but also provided a storyline that was low-hanging fruit for many of the film’s most vocal critics. But the appeal to me was never the will-she-won’t-she win. It was always about the fact that there’s an organization out there that is willing to reward kids for artistic endeavors, and there’s a city that comes out in droves to support them, and there’s a roomful of people wanting to put them on a pedestal for a few minutes for daring to be different. The trophy is just an extension of that appreciation of art. Fitting, then, that it’s a work of art itself, made fresh every year by another artist. It’s not about winning; it’s about appreciating.
The allure that the artcar scene had for us, and the draw of Rebecca, was the societal value of a group of people willing to transform a sacred representation of material America and challenge our intrinsic set of values by driving it right in front of our faces.
“This is my analogy,” Rebecca says. “Your head is like a mayonnaise jar. If you don’t open the top, it’s all in there; it’s the same shit. But someone comes along and unscrews the top and all this incredible shit starts happening. You open your mind. Most people at the parade aren’t going to run home and make an artcar. Or someone that honks at you. Just the fact that they honk or they laugh, it’s just unscrewed a little bit. We’ve had a lot of loose mayonnaise jars around here. You undo it and you’re able to have a bigger world. People keep everything so tied in like that. Instead of having a little tiny world, your world just gets so much bigger.”
This May, the last Ms. Bass artcar will roll in the ArtCar Parade, and it will probably win the Mayor’s Cup. Call it a lifetime achievement award. Some time in June she’ll retire from HISD, and then…?
“I’m going to have to work, I’m just ready for another chapter,” she says. “I’m scared to death. I’m getting older and tireder, and I feel I need to take a little more time off. I’ve given 110 percent for a long time.”
So maybe she’ll scale it down to 100. She wants a master’s degree in fine arts and sculpture and has applied to UH, North Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. Now is the time.
“Not that I’m old, but there’s a lot more behind me than in front of me,” she says.
The end of our conversation reminds me of a quote often attributed to John Lennon, but who really knows. It goes like this:
“When I was 5 years old my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Rebecca has a similar story.
“When I was in high school they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, ‘I want to make a difference.’ The English teacher got pissed at me.”
She shrugs and laughs a laugh that says, No wonder I became a teacher.
“I don’t know,” Rebecca says. “I just want to make a difference.”
Ford Gunter is one half of Del Monte Films, who along with partner Carlton Ahrens produced and directed Art Car: The Movie.
A complete set of photos from this article can be found here.