Metal to the Middle

When artist Lily Cox-Richard returned to California in 2000 after a year on America’s highways with her trucker boyfriend, she couldn’t leave the road behind. As soon as she finished college it showed up in her sculpture and metal work.

Now, her ornate belt buckles, based on the life she experienced from the cab, are showing up in art shows across California and generating interest among truckers nationwide. The buckles are a kind of whimsical satire of life on the road, with inspiration drawn from food, family, name badges and even lot lizards.

“These buckles are snapshots,” Cox-Richard says. “They don’t try to tell the whole trucking story, but simply catch a glimpse of part of it.”

The buckles record stories she heard from truckers. Crafted out of sterling silver, they are sculptures with both cast and etched elements. Some of the buckles open up to reveal a storage compartment related to the buckle’s theme. The front of one buckle depicts an intricate map of the United States and it’s full of tiny holes. Movable pins fit into the holes, marking where the wearer is from, where he is or where he’s headed. When the buckle is opened, it reveals plastic pockets for photographs or memories of home.

The artist says she wanted to flesh out the idea of the American road. “You know, it’s such a mythical American idea to go out West or go out on the road,” she says. “I was surprised that truckers are not a bigger part of popular culture today. When I went to look for other references to trucking, what I found was all from the 1970s. Truckers still exist. It’s not just a ’70s thing.”

The belt buckles are designed to capture a ‘snapshot’ of the trucking lifestyle.

Cox-Richard, was studied jewelry in art school, focused on belt buckles because they are a familiar trucker icon. She says she got a lot of flack for designing belt buckles – even from her professor – but no other artists were designing them. Besides, buckles gave her a way to tell the story she wanted about truckers.

“There’s a funny thing about belt buckles,” she says. “Their location is between the gut and the groin. It takes a pretty macho man to draw attention to an area right next to his crotch.”

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Belt buckles also are a moniker for many truckers – a statement of identity unique to truck drivers and cowboys. “Somehow pendants didn’t seem appropriate,” she says. Truckers don’t actually wear the biggest buckles (cowboys do), she says, but among truckers, drivers from Texas wear the biggest ones.

Cox-Richard was only 19 when she first hit the road with her fiancé, John Evans. Both are originally from Centreville, Va. They met when he was a waiter in a local restaurant. When he started trucking, Evans and Cox-Richard became pen pals. “He used to send postcards from all over the country,” she says. When she finally joined him she fell in love with the road. A year and a half after they left the road she says it’s still not out of her system, or her fiancé’s. “We got to meet so many different people. Now we’re homesick for so many different places.”

Of her buckles, one design stands out to truckers she’s met. It’s also caught the attention of their wives. The buckle mimics the “No Lot Lizards” signs found on many trucks. When Cox-Richard discussed the buckle on an Internet chat room for truckers’ wives, she was inundated with offers to buy it. Etched into the back of the buckle is a story about a prostitute. The story, told to Cox-Richard by a trucker she met in a chat room, is a compelling reminder of the importance of fidelity, she says. By the trucker’s estimate, this prostitute had sex 10 to 20 times a day, six days a week from the time she was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 to 1991 when the driver last heard about her.

The artist, who got engaged at Jubitz Truck Stop in Portland, Oregon, says her year on the road didn’t make her an expert on truckers but did give her a deep appreciation for a profession often maligned by the public.

“There are all these men and women doing this thankless job all the time,” she says. “They’re great people.”

Even though she is no longer on the road, Cox-Richard has kept in touch with trucking. As she began designing her belt buckles she connected with truckers through Internet chat rooms or in truckstops in Sacramento and Santa Nella, Calif. She would introduce herself to truckers while they were doing laundry, catching a smoke break or relaxing. She received advice on her buckles over coffee and pie, and used the stories truckers told her as inspiration for her art.

The buckles, which are not commercially available, have been shown at several art shows in California and may show up on display at truckstops in the future, the artist says.

Cox-Richard says the next story she plans to tell in art will deal with souvenirs. She’s working on a job this summer at the famous Wall Drug Store in Wall, S.D. “I miss the road,” she says. “This summer I’ll be stuck at the roadside attraction instead of driving through.”

Cox-Richard says she wants to thank the truckers she met along the way for their help and wants to contact a few she has photos of. If you met her while she was on the road, you can drop her a line at P.O. Box 230062, Centreville, VA 20120 or an e-mail at [email protected].