Aaron Hardin on Hot Rods

Aaron's truck

1. How long have you been driving? Can you share with us a story/memory about driving?

I've lived most of my life in west Tennessee, USA. When you live in small town America, driving is just about the only way around. I remember turning 16 and rushing to the DMV that week just to get me driver's license. A car, no matter how junky, was a ticket to freedom.

2. For the uninitiated, what are hot rods and what does the hobby involve?

Hot rods are typically older American cars and trucks from the 1920's-1970's that were modified to go fast. They are big, drink copious amounts of gasoline, create a ton of noise, and are a riot to drive. Some people build pristine cars that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, while others buy old junkers and fix them up on a small budget. I belong to the latter category. Since these older vehicles tend to be fairly simple to work on, with many of the systems functions mechanically rather than being controlled by a computer, much of the restoration can be done in your driveway. There is also huge a community surrounding the hot rod culture. I've met dozens of people at the gas pump that just wanted to talk about their project or my old truck. You never meet a stranger driving an old car.

3. How long have you been driving or working on hot rods? What got you started?

Throughout my childhood, I'd visit my father in Arkansas on the weekends and he would reminisce about the 1970s, playing rock music, and his 1969 Pontiac Firebird. He would tell me stories of big V8 muscle cars, street races, and trolling through the Sonic Drive-In on Friday nights. He even had a 1970s model Chevy C10 when I was a kid and we'd drive around the back roads in Arkansas doing burnouts. The sound and smell of an old carbureted American V8 had a deep impression on me. I've always loved cars, especially fast ones. But it really wasn't until I finished graduate school in 2016 that I committed to learning how to fix older cars. I spent so much time in my head dealing with my art that I needed an escape. When I climb under my truck, I stop thinking about my career or if anyone cares about my work or if I'll get my book published or where my next show will be. I can just live in the moment, turn some wrenches, and fire up that old truck to hear it run finally. There's no ambiguity or existential anxiety. Either it works or it doesn't. And when I figure out how to make it work, there is the brief moment of accomplishment. And I need that now and then.

4. What can you get from cars that you can’t get from anything else?

Driving an old vehicle is a complete sensory experience. The sound and feel of the rumble of a V8, the smell of the fumes, the wind blowing through the open windows, the smell of the road, and the preparedness you must have to drive archaic technology all engulf your consciousness. There are no antilock brakes, no electronically controlled stability, no cruise control, no air conditioning... you get the idea. You have to be present in the moment. You have to watch all of you gauges because it could all break down at any moment (these vehicles aren't known for their reliability). These vehicles command a certain attention. They aren't a formless silver blob like most modern cars. They don't get lost in a sea of cars in a parking lot. Each one is unique, as the years of both abuse and love make them what they are.

But for me, I feel a sense of connectedness to a history. I feel more at home sitting around a old car with a group of strangers that I do in a gallery in New York. I don't come from a family of artists. My people are blue collar workers from the country. I think that I'll always live between two worlds. It would be a great tragedy to forget where I come from and the history that made me the artist that I am.

5. How did you get started and why do you keep going?

Working on my old truck is a sort of escape from my art. There are just seasons where things aren't working, whether I'm stuck in a project or in between works or just confused on what the next step is. I have to be making or working on something, so the truck is my outlet when my art is hung up. I started a new photographic project in January, so I've spent much less time working on the truck. It just goes in waves depending on my art.

6. What’s your favourite car you’ve worked on? Why?

Since I am fairly new to wrenching, I've really only worked on my own stuff. My personal vehicle is a 1977 Chevy C10 step-side pickup truck. I bought the truck from a buddy with some money I had from selling off my back-up photo gear after I started teaching. The truck had a few issues, so I spent nine months preparing it for a 1000 mile road trip. It ran perfect the whole trip and was a definite milestone for me.

7. What isn't obvious about hot rods/the people/the activity from the outside?

The assumption around here at least is that the only people that are into hot rods are old white guys that go to car shows and sit in lawn chairs the whole time. It's been my experience that there is a diverse community of people that want to sit and talk about cars, no matter if you drive an old rust bucket like me or a $200k show car. There is an openness and willingness to help total strangers that I don't see in many other hobbies. During my summer road trip, I only knew one person through social media. By the end of the trip, I was adopted into a group of a dozen hot rod enthusiasts.

8. Tell us about someone you met through doing it. What are they like and what do they get out of the activity?

My favorite car connection so far was with a neighbor. I say neighbor, but the gentleman lives about a mile from my house. I'd seen his truck parked outside of his house for years, but never actually met the guy. I was running errands one day in the fall, and just as I was about to pull out into the street I hear a voice say, "What year is your truck?" He proceeded to tell me all about his truck that he was building with his son before his son moved off for college. I could tell that he really just wanted to connect with someone. And I was honored to receive that connection. Once I realized he owned the truck I'd seen for years, we laughed and talked about maybe getting together sometime to turn a wrench. Despite our age differences, seasons of life, and even racial differences, he an African American gentleman and me a 30 year old white guy, I felt an immediate kindredness.

9. When you're driving/working on a car what are you thinking about?

When I'd driving, so many of my senses are engaged that my mind is free to wander. I find it to a valuable time for being open to new ideas or just mulling over current projects. When I'm working on the truck, I can only think about the task at hand. Both processes are beneficial depending on what phase of a photo project I'm in the middle of.

10. Where’s your favourite place to drive?

During my 1000 mile road trip this summer, I drove mostly old highways that have long been forgotten due to the interstate system. I love driving through these small, once booming towns, that are now slowly fading. It's good to remember that there are roads that connect and weave throughout the USA that most people don't drive anymore. The interstate is so terribly boring. But winding through a forgotten byway is delightful. As a photographer, much of my work is made in these sorts of places. I find the every-American, nondescript small town to be a wonderful photographic canvas.