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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 2, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 5
Time Out With: Tim Phelps, Medical Illustrator and Flame Painter

In the 'miniature museum' in his Towson home, Tim Phelps puts finishing touches on a 1/43-scale 1932 Ford coupe, painted with traditional faded flames with a dropshadow and pinstriped in lime.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Tim Phelps likes it hot. Flaming hot.

In fact, give Phelps a blank surface, and he's more than likely to have a flame on it before you can say "fat-fender Ford."

An award-winning medical illustrator for Johns Hopkins by day, Phelps 10 years ago developed an off-hours passion for flame painting, the kind you're likely to see on a circa 1950s hot rod.

Phelps prefers to flame miniature die-cast cars, but he's been known to heat up pool cues, coffee mugs, T-shirts and even Santa's sleigh with his scorching art.

Over time, Phelps has become an expert on flaming and even found time to write a book on the subject: Up in Flames: The Art of Flame Painting (July 2006, Motorbooks).

Phelps joined Johns Hopkins in 1986 and today serves as an associate professor and assistant director of the School of Medicine's Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, the oldest program of its kind in the United States. The department is both a resource for Hopkins affiliates and a training ground for the next generation of medical illustrators.

Phelps, who calls himself a general illustrator, renders surgical procedures and organs and body parts from head to toe for Web sites, textbooks, patient education pamphlets, journals and other publications. Of note, Phelps was the primary illustrator and art director for The Johns Hopkins Family Health Book, a mammoth comprehensive health guide first published in 1999.

The Gazette recently sat down with Phelps to chat about his hot hobby in his "miniature museum," a room in his house in Towson that he's converted into a workshop and display area for his 800 or so flamed cars. Or is it 1,000? He's lost count.

Q: How do you create your medical images, say for a surgery procedure?

A: I sketch in pencil on tracing paper. Of course, we make we sure we don't put eraser crumbs into the surgical field [laughs]. We are trying to identify surgical moments, key things that are happening, perhaps certain nerves being identified and preserved.

Q: Do you transfer all your work to computer?

A: Right now it's a 50-50 mix of traditional and computer media. The computer does a lot, but it can't replace the draftsmanship of an artist.

Q: How did you get into the field?

A: I was always an artist and interested in science.

Q: Not much call for impressionistic or abstract drawings in your line of work, huh?

A: There is a responsibility here of not being only an artist but a communicator. It's not all about making pretty pictures. It's about making pretty pictures that communicate. And when it's communicating medical anatomy, it's got to be right on.

Q: So, how did this flame-painting hobby of yours get started?

A: This is bizarre. I was in a toy store about 10 years ago and struck up a conversation with someone looking at the Hot Wheels cars. He was a pretty knowledgeable guy on hot rods and customs, so we struck up a friendship. At one point, later on into our friendship, he said, "You're an artist. You should try to paint your own cars." I had never really thought about it before.

I thought the seed was planted, however, when I was about 5 or 6 years old. My oldest brother, who is 10 years older than me, had a 1929 Model A Ford, a red one with white primer spots and spoke wheels. It was a pretty cool car, and ever since I've loved cars, especially miniature ones.

Q: What was your first flame?

A: Well, it was downright ugly — a little Matchbox car. I was just trying to see what painting on little cars was like.

Q: But you persevered.

A: I started looking through the hot rod magazines and realized there were different flame styles. I was trying to pinpoint when those came about. It just led me down this long path of history of all these different styles that came and went. Some disappeared and are now back again with a vengeance.

For instance, there is a style now called realistic flames, and they really look like fire. It turns out those started out as a treatment in the 1970s with folks painting dragons spitting fire or volcanoes on vans. The style disappeared, and it came back like in the late 1990s, mostly from this guy, Art Himsl. He is the king of the hill, and the one that everybody follows.

Q: Why flame at all? What are the origins of this art form?

A: Basically, these teenagers back in the early 1950s were going to the salt flat races out in the dry lakes areas of California. They were seeing these low-slung, Track T race cars and stuff like that that people would drive there.

People were also getting their cars customized. They would chop the roofs and channel the body over the chassis. They would be doing all this modification that would take three, four, maybe six months to do. So why not make your car look just as hot and cool by painting flames on it in much less time? It started out with single-color flames with a single-color pinstripe. Then they added a few more colors, and it completely took off.

Q: I notice a lot of the cars you do are ones from the 1940s and 1950s.

A: Those are generally the accepted cars to flame. But what is interesting is that the decades are moving up. Right now 1960s and some 1970s cars are being turned into customs. But, yes, most are 1940s and 1950s cars, fat-fender Fords, Chevys and Buicks, chopped Mercs [with a few inches taken off the roofs].

Q: How about flaming a 2001 Toyota Corolla? Not done?

A: Well, yesterday I just flamed a little [2005] Scion. I put some retro wheels on it. I mean anything is fair game for me. I've even been blasphemous and flame-painted period Ferraris.

Q: Are there any major do's and don'ts to flaming?

A: These days it's hard to say. I think it's all about looking at the body lines of the car, trying to find a flame style that matches the flow or look of the car. I suppose there are do's and don'ts. Certain people wouldn't put their paint work to a particular group of cars.

Q: What led you to write the book?

A: I couldn't find information anywhere. There wasn't a book like it, and there seemed to me there was this need. Now there are all these car shows on TV. And what's great is that the painters themselves are starting to get featured on shows like Orange County Choppers and MTV's Pimp My Ride.

When I started flaming miniature cars, getting really interested in it, I started to get interested in the life histories of the people who made this art form what it is and started calling a few of them. I thought, Why don't I write a book?

Q: How did you research 'Up in Flames'?

A: I had the opportunity last fall to live in an early 1970s Airstream RV for three weeks with the photographer, Paul Westbrook. His work is outstanding. We traveled from L.A. to San Francisco and visited six of the flame painters' studios. We didn't know where our next meal, or shower, was coming from. It was the trip of a lifetime.

Q: Looking around your museum, there seem to be a lot of flame styles.

A: Yes, there is a crab claw flame that started in the 1950s. Those were the earlier, short stubby flames that eventually began to get a little more fluid in the late 1950s. Later still, the hubs inside the branches became more oval, almost swimming tadpolelike.

Then there are overlapping flames, ghost flames, shadow flames and cryptic flames that are more triangular and angular. There are also tribal flames that look like dragon tails and spikes. The art form is being limited only by each flame painter's imagination.

Q: For you, why miniature and not life-size cars?

A: Well, for one, I don't have a lot of room to do the big cars [laughs]. With big cars, there is a whole lot more to it. I understand the process completely, but it's having the right space to work in, a lint-free environment. You need all the spray equipment and to be able to work with automobile paint. I would never pretend to be able to do that, although I've threatened to flame paint my nephew's tractor.

Q: You've flamed pool cues, coffee mugs. OK. But birdhouses?

A: [Laughs] Toasted Tweet Suites are what I call them. I don't know. It's just one more thing to try my hand at. Birdhouses have a broad surface to work on.

Q: You do these cars just for yourself?

A: Yes. I've done a couple of commissions, but I'm not out there beating the bushes looking to flame people's miniature cars. But if they call and ask, I'd certainly do it.

Q: If I commissioned you to flame my keyboard mouse, where would you start?

A: Ah, I would do a sketch of it. Put tracing paper over it and look at all the dimensions. Then I would create a pencil sketch based on those dimensions. I do the same with the cars. I look for all the body seams, window openings, and then I physically lay the design on top of the car. Then I take frisket paper — an adhesive clear film — put that over the top of my sketch and take an X-acto knife and cut it out. Then I paint it, clean it up and then pinstripe it.

Q: What is your next die-cast car you're going to flame?

A: A 1937 Ford Zephyr. Pretty exotic, isn't it?

Q: Any large-scale works in your future?

A: I'm perfectly happy doing it this way. I would really like to get another book going if I can, maybe about the next generation of flame painters. I'd also like to get a book up and running on all my miniatures. I just haven't found the right publisher yet.

Q: Do the Hot Wheels or Matchbox people know about you?

A: I don't know if they do or not. Getting my foot in the door has been really tough. When I was in California last fall, I met with one of the die-cast companies, and they were ready to hire me on the spot, but I wasn't ready to quit my job and pack up the family and move to California. I would consider offering my services long distance and freelance; it's a viable option.

Q: Has your family — your children — commissioned you to flame anything?

A: I wish they would [laughs]. I did birdhouses for my son and daughter. They don't know what they think of Dad's hobby.

Q: What was the longest period you've gone without flaming something?

A: Well, this last time it was about two or three months, which was way too long for me [laughs].

Q: What spurs you on to do another car?

A: I just love it. I love the little cars, and the die-cast companies are coming out with cooler models month after month. It's just something that grabbed ahold of me, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

Q: Does it pain you to see a naked, unflamed die-cast car?

A: [Laughs.] I suppose it does.


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