Chika Okoli called for an Uber — and ended up riding to Union Station in an art gallery on wheels.
Okoli, a Yale School of Medicine student, made the call from Madison Towers on Park Street. She and her friend waited as a little grey 2007 Toyota Yaris turned left and pulled into the parking lot. They noticed geometric designs done in white, red, and black tape on the doors, roof, and side view mirror.
And on the inside there was more. A lot more.
To Okoli, and her friend, it was an unexpected — and cool —ride.
The Uber driver, and creator of the designs, was Adam Malec, longtime hard rocker who cofounded the New Haven band Groovski. He has a new gig and calling as a visual artist. And he’s using the instrument of his day (and night) job driving for Uber — his 200,000-mile-old Toyota all colorfully taped especially on the inside from dash to rear seat — as a visual calling card.
Of the 7,000 to 8,000 passengers who have slipped in to ride during the last year and a half, Malec estimated, most have found his artistic take on upholstery and everything else you could cover safely inside a car a pretext for discussing art, psychology, and creativity in general.
A handful of customers have asked him, to his great irritation, how many drugs he has had to take to achieve the all-over taped interior. Only one woman refused to ride, he reported. The reason she offered: She was concerned tape might stick to her dress. On a deeper level, Malec recollected, he thinks that customer, a suburban woman, was simply afraid to ride with him.
Malec got the music bug — or the general urge to express himself through art — in his native Poland, where he described the music scene of the early 1980s as akin to the music explosion in the late 1960s New York. Malec arrived in Connecticut in 1989 at age 15 with parents who had been active in the Solidarity movement. While he continues to play now and then, he turned, without any formal training, to visual art when he began doing posters for his more recent band, group Procedure Club.
“I was trying to make straight lines. You can’t get straight lines, so I started to use tape. And then I began to use tape to fool the eye, to mask that it was tape.”
During a tour of his studio and a ride in his aged but still peppy Toyota to pick up Uber passengers, he shared how that approach to art is on a continuum with the experimental music he had been doing lately with Procedure Club, which he termed “pop infused with a lot of chaos.”
Two years ago, when a section of the interior insulation by the driver’s seat separated from the frame of the car, Malec fixed it with tape, colorful tape. Because he is always expressing himself, he said, what emerged wasn’t merely a repair job but a design.
A passenger saw it and made the passing remark that Malec should cover the interior entirely in tape.
“You’re crazy,” Malec responded.
“No,” the passenger pressed. “It’ll look good.”
Over time, Malec did precisely that, although he avers he wasn’t quite sure what design he was trying to achieve. “I never have clear intentions in my process. I do something and then I see what I’ve done and I ascribe meaning to it.”
That applies not only to the evolution his “Uber Art Car,” as his friend and fellow artist Bill Saunders terms it, but also to the paintings, largely untitled, and sculpture that fill Malec’s studio space from floor to ceiling.
Roll the clock ahead a year from the moment of that passenger’s suggestion, and Malec picked the man up again. He was pleased with how Malec had taken his suggestion and run with it.
“Best decision I ever made,” Malec told him.
Malec, who used to drive for limousine companies, described driving the exhibition on wheels as like being inside a cartoon or a vortex. Sometimes he sees the car as his mobile living room.
That makes the passenger his guest. He wants the guest to have a good time and engage in meaningful conversation. Some people prefer to listen to their music or just be still, and Malec is fine with that.
The art work is asserting his humanity, he said. “Behind the wheel is a person, not an instrument to get you from place to place.”
As Malec’s mobile gallery grew, so did his Uber ratings. The car is old, and he is a smoker, so sometimes the passengers complain, he said. However, with the arrival of the tape displays, his commendations from passengers have shot up, he said, with only a complaint registered here and there.
“This is a conversation starter, and it’s often meaningful,” he said of the car art.
He also enjoys the interactions from passers-by. “I get weird looks, then smiles and waves. It’s almost like being in a parade. If I’m having a bad day, the conversation sometimes takes me away [from troubles] ... and I get to talk about myself. Who doesn’t like to talk about himself!”
Before the tape found its way inside the Toyota, Malec said. He was using it to augment often pixilated images he was creating from paint and collaged elements on canvases in his studio. When they’re done, he sometimes puts a layer of epoxy on them. The result is that the images both draw in, through their complexity, but also push you out with their light and shine. It’s a unique and odd effect.
There are also sculptural pieces, squashed up figures that emerge when Malec takes gobs of different tapes and “smooshes” them together. He gave this reporter a tour of a lurking menagerie, which included an intellectual with glasses, animal figures, and more recently even a religious figure, “a Mary with spoons.”
To date he’s sold some works to individuals. In the meantime, to earn a living, he heeds the Uber calls; with so many ride-sharing drivers these days, that’s become harder. To help make ends meet Malec also does Polish translation work.
His hyper-busy canvases are full of the drama of contrasting, bleeding colors. He suggested his eye might be reflecting images from the medieval/Renaissance church he often visited as a kid in his hometown of Przeworsk, in southeastern Poland near Cracow.
He has also been watching documentaries about art history and has become particularly attached to images of the Last Judgment done by medieval and Renaissance masters. Malec spoke of the detail these painters lavished on individual faces and bodies as the figures ascend to heaven or descend to hell.
“What they were doing in the Last Judgments, to terrify people and to dazzle them, you have to show each individual torment in a traditional painting, the way I show the torment in each pixel,” he said.
In his work, Malec is limited to colors available at Home Depot and other stores — the grey, white, black, and red in which duct, plumbers, and electrical tape are manufactured. There’s something satisfying, he said, about having that limit on color freedom.