Something inside the Gypsy Cab smells like fresh-cut grass. It's indeterminable whether it's the leftover gin scent of the previous passenger, Gary, whom we've just dropped off in Northeast, or the Mr. Sketch scented watercolor markers he used to hatch out his cab fare on a piece of paper.
For days, Anthony Marcellini has been trying to pick up people at bus stops and street corners. There hadn't been many takers before Gary, a 25-year-old computer programmer who was standing at the corner of Washington and Hennepin clutching an "Applebee's to Go" bag. Marcellini is in town from New York as part of a five-night Gypsy Cab art project, one of numerous interactive public exhibitions he works on with his art collective, It Can Change. Tonight, the 26-year-old is driving a white Pontiac Transport minivan through the Twin Cities, giving rides in exchange for artwork. The pieces will be displayed at the Soap Factory along with pictures of the passengers, but for Marcellini, the project is more about the process than the end result. "We set up various situations," he says. "It's something like curation, I guess. But it's also like performance art."
The van has all the trappings of a kidnapper's paradise: a makeshift passenger seat that also serves as a bed; insulation boards stapled to the inside of the van, covering its back windows. But this one's got a warm, pink glow (from the inside color of the boards), a mound of Catholic schoolgirl poetry, and, mounted everywhere, pictures drawn in pencil, watercolor marker, and ink pen. With each turn, the raisins and pennies one passenger glued to the van's walls drop, making the sound of a giant's piggy bank.
Marcellini has milk crates filled with art supplies: duct tape, Elmer's glue, a bundle of yarn, scraps of cardboard, and green fabric. Most artwork is created during the short cab ride to wherever the passenger wants to go, though some have brought work that's already completed, such as poetry and CDs. There's a black-pen drawing of stick figures with satellites for heads, a marker etching of a pink flamingo riding a green skateboard, and, from Gary, a work that resembles a pea pod crossed with a rocket.
Handing out thumb-sized flyers to potential riders at the Spyhouse Espresso Bar, Marcellini gets a call from a guy outside St. Paul who wants a ride to his girlfriend's house in Uptown. Neil Young's somber Silver and Gold is skipping on the portable CD player when we pull up to an enormous house enshrouded by trees. Two guys are waiting outside on a circular drive that's lined with fancy cars and marked, overhead, by an American flag snapping in the wind.
Their breath smells of alcohol, but the guys are sloshed on enthusiasm. They invite us to look around inside. Patrick Pryor, the 30-year-old abstract painter who called the Gypsy Cab, lives in the home, which he says is owned by a highly enlightened psychiatrist and his wife. He met the couple through his friend and cohort today, architect Aaron Roseth, who once lived here while going through a divorce that shattered his heart.
Roseth and Pryor finish each other's sentences, jump off from each other's stories, and compliment each other's achievements. "You're a fantastic artist," Roseth tells Pryor.
They lead us to the home's seventh floor (the seventh chakra, they call it) and Roseth encourages Pryor to show us the sand playroom. Though Pryor is reluctant, he opens the door. A waist-high sandbox filled with soft, white-beach sand sits in the center of the room. Acres of tiny figurines from all over the world line the walls: a black Mary and Joseph, a harp, Egyptian pyramids, sand castles, ivory princesses, a pedestal sink, a swan, a family on a church pew, a plastic Alf.
"People can pick anything they want," Pryor says. "They can just play in the sand and create a scene without any interpretation at all. It's all about the process." Adds Roseth, of the homeowners: "They've developed a very deep sense of what it means for all of us to understand ourselves."
Into the Gypsy Cab Pryor brings one of his paintings, a portrait of a dark-skinned woman who is tilting her head and smiling, and a tube of red paint. He and Roseth sit cross-legged on a hunk of foam in back, smearing paint all over the piece with their bare hands. They use a credit card to smooth out the surface and, unintentionally, cover their legs in red. "This is awesome," Roseth declares.
Later that night, it's Marcellini and I who are amped from meeting Roseth and Pryor. We cruise up and down the empty streets of Uptown, the East Bank, and downtown looking for willing passengers and listening to a CD left by a rider as payment. It sounds like Andrew WK with an '80s pop hangover. "Man, nothing's going to top those guys," Marcellini offers.
I ask him which miniatures he would've chosen to play with in the sandbox. "I'd choose the Alf," he says. I don't interpret it. Like everything else tonight, it's all about the process.