Somewhere up an old logging road in the rainforest of British Columbia is a wondrous, enigmatic work of art. Dozens of antique cars, Ford Model Ts, old Dodges and Chryslers from the 1920s and ’30s, glisten like bronze sculptures under a canopy of trees in the green glow of moss and precipitation. The site-specific art installation is the creation of Ken Gerberick, an American-born, Vancouver-based artist-sculptor, best known for his wild assemblages and far-out art cars.
Gerberick began work on the car project known as Forest Installation 43 years ago when he leased two acres of bush and started hauling in cars on a homemade trailer made of bed frames. He jacked up the cars and rolled them into place until his second wife made things easier with the gift of a hand-held winch.
Over the years he’s had 50 or 60 cars on the property and hundreds of thousands of car parts. Gerberick works with nature the way landscape painters work with paint. The weather strips the car’s original paint coats, oxidizing the metal, while Gerberick controls the moss coverage and rate of decay by brushing off fallen tree needles. “Cedar and fir needles are very acidic,” he says. “I want the needles brushed off where the fenders meet the bodies and where the windows meet the hoods. If you don’t clean them off, the cars rust out much quicker.”
It’s this arrested rate of decay that gives the site an apocalyptic feel. Stepping around the cars, it feels as though some sudden disaster befell the drivers the same way Vesuvius decimated its citizens, and all that’s left of this lost civilization is the way in which the humans parked their vehicles.
Work on the project began shortly after Gerberick arrived penniless in Canada in March 1969. As he tells this story, he leans against a crowded work table in his Gastown studio. A draft dodger? “No, a deserter,” he corrects. “I deserted from the army during a 20-hour kill training. I was a crazy, stoned, hippie pacifist. I would’ve been killed in ’Nam.”
For a while, he hid out with friends in San Francisco until his presence there caused so much heat from the FBI, his drug-possessing friends drove him up to Canada to get him out of sight. A family from Victoria who were involved with the underground railroad took him in and gave him shelter.
All through high school Gerberick had debated whether to become a visual artist or run an auto body shop. “I’m totally into old cars,” he says, but ultimately the art chose him. “I’ve been drawing ever since I figured out which end of a pencil to use. It’s what I’ve always been driven to do.”
He painted houses to earn money to lease the bush property, and for seven years, he lived on site in a cabin he built from supplies he scrounged for free. The cabin had no running water and was heated by wood and diesel. “I was too cheap to use kerosene so I used diesel,” he says, a necessity he regrets for the damage it did to his lungs. “My lungs are ruined. All my kerosene lamps and heater I ran diesel in, and they smoked like the tailpipe of a truck. I had one very powerful lamp that put off enough heat I had to have a hubcap on the ceiling so it wouldn’t scorch the wood. I had to wash that hubcap weekly. It was black. And I worked with asbestos with my dad and I smoked cigarettes for 33 years and smoked dope for 20 years, so yeah, my lungs have taken a beating.”
All around the bush property are hand-painted signs warning trespassers to stay off. A moss-covered rope and the secrecy of the location are all that’s stopping thieves from pillaging the place for parts. Already, a Model-A hot-rod body was stolen. In the 43 years since Gerberick’s been working there, he’s given directions to the secret locale to a total of four people. For security reasons he doesn’t court media attention. “I’ve never been that involved with money,” he says. “I don’t do art to make money. It’s hard to explain, but art is what I do. It’s a natural drug. Hours go by and you’re intensely doing this thing, and it feels right. It feels like what you’re supposed to be doing. It makes you high.”