Sherry Wheelden is primarily a show-car designer for auto shows across the country and has been involved in automobiles her whole life having grown up in a family of car and truck enthusiasts.
Recently, The Art Career Project interviewed Sherry to see how she evolved into a skilled, award-winning car designer:
Sherry, please describe your journey as an auto designer and your particular professional experience.
My father frequently bought salvage wrecked cars at insurance auctions and, once in a while, we’d get a newly wrecked sports car at auction, or one of my uncles would get a muscle car to restore. All of these projects involved a lot of fill work, and that helped me to develop my eye for detail. For me, it’s an ability to design and perfect smooth flow in a vehicle as a whole unit. It’s about aesthetics. I can see the ripples in even a well-filled body panel a mile away!
I began showing my own vehicles as a young adult during the summer season at small car shows in my area. In the next few years, I began traveling further away to shows and began gaining attention with trophy wins. By 2007, I completed a major build on a vehicle, and in that season I swept every show with first place wins. As a show-car designer, I design one-off vehicles to compete and (ideally) win in car shows, which provides a form of advertising for sponsors. I have two vehicles that I have built currently showing for Meguiars, Inc.
Please be so kind as to detail the education and early pertinent experience you received to prepare you for your professional career. Recommended schools, workshops, valued mentors, etc., would be appreciated.
I had a terrific art teacher in grade school. I drew car pictures constantly and was always reading books about drag racing and studying funny car shapes and the lines of the cars. By the time I was around 10, I was drawing sports car prototypes. I had a different art teacher in junior high, but my grade school art teacher had transferred to my high school by the time I was in my first year there. At my high school, students typically did not get approved for art class until senior year, however, my art teacher approved me for all four years of art class. Additionally, I was in the school art club all four years. I had my hands-on experience rebuilding cars throughout this time after I got off the bus from school and on the weekends. I continued to do art projects focusing on cars, following whatever project was assigned in class –batik (see image), painting, 3D, etc.
My teacher recommended that I attend an automotive design school out west somewhere (I can’t remember where.). My parents, however, wanted me to stay local. I studied studio art at the University of Maine, which had just one graphics design class. This was before computers were on the scene, and we did our work by hand with brushes and gauche. I loved it and aced the class. I was working on polishing the eye for flow, the same skill I use to balance the shapes and colors I use with the cars I design. Two years into my would-be bachelor’s degree program at UMaine, the professor teaching most of the classes in my major took a hiatus leaving me with a big decision to make. I had to change the direction of my art from intaglio lithography to something else after 2 years of work. Rather than start over with art forms, I decided to transfer schools, and four years later had a double major bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance. At this point, I began working in business and put cars and art aside for a while, which caused some personal issues for sure. People with creativity need an outlet!
What are some of your favorite or, perhaps, most noteworthy projects? Why?
I believe my most noteworthy completed project so far is my Eclipse GT, which I built for Meguiars. I had the ‘opportunity’ to give it a full design facelift after a tent blew into it at a car show last year. The redesign turned out great. I changed the color scheme, put some fill work into the factory emblems of the car and improved the visual balance. I designed custom logos for the car and worked with several vendors to carry the design throughout. You have to be persistent and keep working with your vendors. It takes a lot of patience, with mock-ups, a lot of emails, and unending phone calls. And, after all that, they send you something that isn’t quite right, and you have to do it all over again. You have to coordinate what you are doing between multiple vendors for various items (the exact font style and color shade for an emblem, the embroidery thread for seats and floor mats, etc.). One must be very detail-oriented and… patient.
Was there a period in which you labored as an intern, or perhaps, worked in areas outside of your area of intended expertise?
I never dreamed as I was growing up that cleaning out and rebuilding those wrecked cars would help me later on, but it served as a perfect internship. I certainly worked outside of my area of intended expertise –working in business financed my start and taught me everything I needed to know to work with major companies and learn about promotion.
Your plans for the future?
I have recently completed a book geared towards getting young people interested in car shows and automotive history. It’s called Organizing Car Shows, and can be found at www.UnitedStatesCarShows.com. I also have plans to start a scholarship for students from depressed areas with the interest and aptitude for automotive design.
Wow, that’s a wonderful idea! Any other thoughts that might aid and abet a person on this career path?
Although I’ve been designing and showing cars a long time, it took me quite a few years before I got more serious and organized and began working with big companies. It is more challenging to work in a more rural area and expensive to travel and transport vehicles. But I believe if someone knows what they want and are willing to do what it takes, they can achieve it.
Get more advice from Sherry in our How to Become an Automobile Designer piece.