A Dutch artist runs into obstacles while trying to create a bit of public art for Washington


An artist's rendering of a work called "I Love DC" that Dutch artist Erik Van Loon wants to hang from the exhaust chimney above I-395 near H Street NW. It shows 250 red and black cars arranged to spell "I [Heart] DC." (Courtesy of Erik Van Loon)
Columnist November 13, 2013

Erik Van Loon loves D.C. But does D.C. love him?

“That’s a good question,” the 42-year-old Dutchman says. His tone of voice suggests he needs to think about it for a while.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

These past few weeks have not been easy for Erik. He has been stymied at nearly every turn in his efforts to memorialize — nay, monumentalize — his affection for Washington. Partly this is his own fault. Erik thinks big, and the bigger they come, the harder they, you know. . . .

Erik is a former accountant, sometime taxi driver, occasional distance swimmer and energetic artist from Rotterdam. Since 2005, he has been traveling to New York City for the marathon, where he unveils each year a massive painting along the race route. It’s a bit of guerrilla art. He hopes his paintings will be picked up by TV cameras broadcasting the race.

When Hurricane Sandy canceled last year’s marathon, Erik brought his painting to Washington, where he stealthily unfurled it near the White House. He was quite taken by our city. Washington, he decided, is a lovely place: green, walkable, friendly. He wanted to give the District a gift, and he knew just where to do it.

In one of his wanderings, Erik had come across the tall concrete chimney at Second and H streets NW that vents vehicle exhaust from the Interstate 395 tunnel below. It’s already decorated on the west side with Val Lewton’s 1988 trompe l’oeil image of the Capitol, but Erik thought the narrower south face needed embellishment.

His idea: cajole 250 Washingtonians to park their cars — red and black only — in an arrangement that spells “I [Heart] DC,” which he would then photograph from a helicopter, have printed as large as a billboard and hang on the chimney as if it were a giant Polaroid.

This might then inspire other artists to add their works. “Just imagine this ugly chimney in a couple of years,” Erik says as we stand staring up at it. “More works, more paintings. I think it could be a nice totem pole.”

The moment Erik arrived at Dulles on Sept. 20 he got to work. He stood at the end of the jetway handing out “I Love DC” fliers to his fellow KLM passengers. “Join us,” they read. “We need only 175 red and 75 black cars for approximately 3 hours to realize I LOVE DC.”

He worked out a deal with the owners of a parking lot at Fourth and K NW to charge $3 a car on the Sunday he wanted to take a photo. He put fliers on every red and black car he could find in the city.

“I went to 10 or 12 car dealers,” Erik says, “from BMW to Toyota to Chrysler to Chevrolet, and I ask all those car dealers, ‘Do you know people with a red or a black car who would like to join I Love DC?’ ” (They didn’t.)

He contacted Enterprise Rent-A-Car hoping it would offer a discount on red or black vehicles on the day in question. (It wouldn’t.)

He solicited donations online to cover the costs of the work: He needs $1,200 to make posters to raise awareness, $700 to rent a helicopter for two hours, $1,000 to make Dutch sandwiches for everyone who signed up, $1,600 to print the 18-by-27-foot photo. . . .

Eventually, about 70 people promised their cars, not nearly enough. Nor was Erik getting enough donations. “I can’t afford to pay the whole ‘I Love DC’ myself,” he says. “I’m an artist, not the owner of a development corporation. Also, I’m not Damien Hirst.”

Then there were the logistics themselves. “It’s a no-fly zone,” he says of where he planned to take the photo. He looked into ditching the chopper and renting a crane. He joined a group of local drone enthusiasts, in case it might prove easier to mount a camera on a tiny remote-controlled copter.

D.C. was proving hard to love in other ways, too. When he first arrived, Erik rented two rooms in a D.C. house he found on Craigslist. Erik alleges he was made to sleep in the unheated basement. He moved out, didn’t get his security deposit back and has been staying in the homes of Dutch Americans.

I gently point out that “I [Heart]” is a New York thing and that Washingtonians have complicated feelings about New York. He thinks this shouldn’t be an issue. “ ‘DC’ is really a brand,” he says. “I’m using that to make a simple, effective work.”

Did he ever get permission to hang artwork on the silo-like tower? No, he says. “I’m doing it American style, like Nike: Just do it.”

There has been one bright spot on this trip. “This year, it happened, after nine years,” Erik says. In the live television feed of the New York Marathon, he spotted his painting “I Will Win the War.” It appeared — small and blurry — for seven seconds.

As for D.C., yes, Erik thinks it loves him. It’s just taking a while to show it. He’s given up on creating his giant auto-photograph this year and will go back to Rotterdam in December. He vows to return in April and try again.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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