John May discusses the artistry of hot rods and custom cars

Categories: Art, Q&A

72 Chevy Camaro.jpg
Photo courtesy of John May
'72 Chevy Camaro
Every artist has his quirk -- an obsession within his own work. For John May, that obsession is seeing his reflection on the door of a newly painted car. "I take pictures that are reflection pictures, and they have my reflection in them," he says. "None of the new cars are even remotely as shiny as my cars, and they're brand-new. When you see glass, true glass, you will never forget."

May owns his own custom shop, John May Custom Paint, that he's been running out of his three-car garage for over thirty years. He's getting ready to run a booth at the upcoming Colorado Motorcycle Show and Swap, and took some time to talk about the finer points of customizing.

Many might not view what you do as "conventional art." Do you consider yourself an artist?

I do. I started doing art way before I did cars. I was a ceramist through junior high and all the way through college, but when I was eighteen, I got my first hot rod and I thought, "If I can mold a pot to be shaped how I want, then why can't I shape a quarter-panel like that?" I doubt that I would have been involved in custom work if I wasn't an artist first.

What type of craftsmanship is involved in what you do at the garage?

I basically do all the metal work and fittings. I skim the entire car, from tip to tip. That's like taking a new car and skimming the entire body to make it as straight. In order to make cars look down straight, I mean no dents, I have to take the entire car down flat. It's like a hundred-stage process. So you see, I'm an extreme artist from way back. I even have some graphic work that I put on pieces of aluminum and then frame.

1941 Chevy Master Deluxe Sedan.jpg
Photo courtesy of John May
'41 Chevy Master Deluxe Sedan.
How long have you been customizing cars?

I have been doing this since I was 18, and I'm 52 now. I've been in other professions, but it was hard to be passionate about those professions. When you're done with these jobs, you have something so substantial that the customer is enamored with the work put in front of them. I don't know any profession that gets that. Because no one is bragging about the tile or concrete job they've had done. I've done those types of jobs, too. I've never seen something entice so much love from a customer.

What cars do you own?

I have two show cars, and one is a truck. One is a 1941 Chevy Caster Deluxe Sedan, biker red. That was a customer's car that I bought about nine years ago. It won "best paint" in two major shows. When you're young, you always want to win "best paint," and in honor of my only sweepstakes winner, I also got a 1972 Blazer, Viper Red. So I have two Viper Red Chevys.

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Photo courtesy of John May
Eagle detail
How many cars have you customized?

I would wager to say that I have done over 4,000 cars. I have so many pictures that I have cameras with film that I haven't even developed, and I have boxes and boxes of pictures.

What do you like most about your job?

Taking cars that should have been crushed long before and taking every pane off the car and drilling it all out. People don't know how many hours we spend on cars and how many obstacles come at us -- stuff you have to fix that you never fixed before. When you do this for so long, you feel like you can do anything. These are dream-come-true things for these guys that have been working on these cars for years and we get it done. I get to walk the street and give out hugs and kisses, I swear. That is all the fun, and that's also the payback. And they're out here peddling my stuff like they work for me. That is so fun.

31 model a_opt.jpg
Photo courtesy of John May
'31 Ford Model A.
Do you have a favorite job or story?

That's a hard question. There was a guy who had a Ford collection that was unbelievable. He had a GT 350 Shelby. I tried to get the paint job on it, but he wouldn't give it to me. He finally got the Cobra done, and I looked at it and said, "It looks unbelievable, but see those scratches on the hood? I wouldn't have that on one of my cars."

About three months later, I called him and told him I had a Honda Civic with fewer scratches than his Shelby. There was one reason I did the Honda, and that was to teach a buddy about how to do attach panels. I wanted to teach him how to do metal work, so what better to teach on a '79 Honda? The moral of the story is that the '79 Honda got me the Shelby 350. Yeah.

Are you still working on your craft?

Absolutely. I'm always in an evolution; I am always trying to do better work. But even personally, I try to better myself every day. I'll do things for people that no one else will. I pretty much had to do a super-bowl job on every job. Every job I ever did was just as nice as the last. I treat all the cars the same. I am a masterful chess player, Tiffany. And that's how I get it done.

To contact May, visit his website, www.johnmaycustompaint.com.

May will be showing at the upcoming Colorado Motorcycle Show and Swap, running January 28-29 at the National Western Showcase. For more information, visit www.comotorcycleshowandswap.com.

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