By Nora Sawyer
Sausalito is known for its eccentrics. Be they entrepreneurs like Sally Stanford, wry observers like Phil Frank, philosophers like Alan Watts, or one-of-a-kind writers like Shel Silverstein, Sausalito’s residents have a reputation for originality.
It’s no surprise, then, that our local landmarks are equally distinctive. Take for example Sausalito Art Car Zaboo, which has for nearly twenty years held court from its small flower patch by Galilee Harbor. Brightly painted and covered in toys, tchotchkes, and dismembered dolls, the Sausalito Art Car has appeared in TV guide, boasts its own commemorative t-shirts and a Facebook Fan page, and is even a Pokéstop on Pokémon Go. Tourists pose with it, children stop to peer in at the impassive stuffed animals that gaze from its portal-like windows, and fans even leave small art objects as tribute. It is, in short, an institution.
Named for a late and much-loved dog, Zaboo is the creation of local artist Heather Wilcoxon, who bought the car new in 1984. “It was the year my father died,” she recalls. “I bought the car for $8,848, cash. It was the first new car I ever owned,” she laughs. “The only new car.”
It wasn’t an art car then. For several years, it was just a car. Then, on Wilcoxon’s 50th birthday, she asked her son Jonah to do something creative with the car as a birthday present. “He spray painted the whole thing for me. And my sister, Cici, brought me a toy and glued it onto the hood. The whole thing started from there.”
Wilcoxon drove the car, with an ever-growing collection of toys glued to it, until 2000, when it broke down for good. It sat for a while in Galilee Harbor’s parking lot before moving into its current spot alongside Napa Street, just down from Galilee’s painted mailboxes. Drivability concerns gone, Wilcoxon was free to let loose with her creative vision. Toys engulfed the car, covering its windshield and peering from its windows. Wilcoxon planted succulents alongside it, which grew to surround the car like a fairytale forest. “It stopped being a car and became a monument,” laughs local musician Joe Tate. “Long story short.”
The year 2015 was, Wilcoxon recalls, “peak year for the art car.” The car got a new paint job, with Wilcoxon’s fellow Galilee residents pitching in to freshen it up and spruce up the garden. Best of all, an anonymous donor dropped off an old upright piano, which Wilcoxon painted to match the car, writing “PLAY ME” on the upper front board to entice passers-by.
Once the piano left, things got little quieter. But the car still had plenty to say. Big red letters spelled ‘BELIEVE’ along the top. A small round sign asked viewers to “please be kind to the art car.” And, of course, there were custom Zaboo license plates.
Following the 2016 election, more political signs appeared. Right after Election Day, Wilcoxon placed one reading ‘Not my president” beside the car, but almost immediately took it down. “Someone else put a sign supporting Trump beside it, and I decided that wasn’t a debate I wanted to have here,” Wilcoxon recalls. Still, other signs reflected the tense political times, calling for an end to mass deportations and speaking out against the border wall.
But soon the car itself will be gone. On Saturday, July 22, much of the art was dismantled. The toys and assemblages that once stood atop the car were re-homed in Galilee Harbor’s vegetable garden, or given to passers-by as souvenirs. The car sits under a tarp, and will towed away to make way for the planned re-vitalization of neighboring Dunphy Park.
The car’s retirement has Wilcoxon feeling a little wistful. “I guess it’s time,” she says, “but I’m going to miss the art car.” The car’s departure follows closely on the heels of the death of artist and local institution Bo VanBo, who often painted and displayed his work alongside the car. “Sausalito is changing,” Wilcoxon reflects, “but that’s fine. Everything’s ephemeral. Especially art.”
Heather Wilcoxon has two solo shows currently up in the Bay Area: “Adrift” is at the Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco through July 29th, and “At Sea” is at the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art through September 10th. Check out http://heatherwilcoxon.com/ for information on shows and upcoming workshops.