Heyoka Merrifield has made large-scale sculptures, including one complete with a waterfall and greenhouse. He's made tiny inlaid, double-sided pendants with intricate etchings. The Cherokee shaman and silversmith recently finished another intriguing project: He built an electric Jaguar sports car with solar powered batteries. That car is the subject of a short documentary called Sun Jag: The Seven Generations Car, made by video artist Jason Gutzmer, which screens at the CINE film festival this week.
The "sun jag" was a joint effort between Merrifield, who lives in Stevensville, and his neighbor, Marcus Reddish. Reddish has the techie knowledge to make an electric car. Merrifield had the aesthetic eye to make the parts beautiful. Merrifield fabricated the parts out of stainless steel, gold and brass, cutting them with his jewelry tools and welding them together.
"It's the same kind of detailing he does with his art," Gutzmer says. "It's a work of art on wheels."
The car is a fiberglass replica of a 1938 Jaguar exterior, placed on the chassis of a 1969 Volkswagen. It has an electric motor that runs on 110 volt D/C batteries, which Merrifield has artfully connected together with colorful wires under the hood. It can go 150 miles in one charge. The only maintenance it needs: changing the brushes on the motor every 80,000 miles.
Gutzmer, a longtime Missoulian and associate professor in the University of Montana's media arts program, met Merrifield about 14 years ago in what sounds like a story of serendipity. Gutzmer had been traveling for 13 years across 17 countries with the Rainbow Peace Caravana group of artists, activists and teachers he helped found. On their brochure the group used a quote about a new tribe of people called The Rainbow Warriors who would come from the seven directions of the earth to be guardians of peace and goodwill. It was a quote from Merrifield's book, Sacred Art, Sacred Warriors. Despite knowing the quote, none of the caravan members really knew who Merrifield was.
In 1998, Gutzmer went to Merrifield's home with a friend, without recognizing the name. "I go into his bathroom and see his book and it has the quote," says Gutzmer. "And I come out and say, 'You're that Heyoka Merrifield?' And he says, 'What do you mean?' and I tell him the story about [the caravan] using his quote as a guiding story element. And he says, 'You're that caravan?'"
They made a good connection, says Gutzmer, and he went on to make a film about Merrifield called Sundancing with the Muse, which had its premier at CINE two years ago and has since aired on PBS.
Sun Jag is a lot about the technical side of the car, but it also shows Merrifield's principles. In the film we hear that he's always had a love for cars, which comes as a surprise from someone who is also so adamant about living with nature.
"The seven generations car is the real meaning for him," says Gutzmer. "It's not about saving money and not buying gas or doing it because he's into techie geeky stuff. It's really about the creative potential to make something really beautiful that does no harm for seven generations."
Merrifield's interest in sun power also comes into play here. He has a solar system on his large artist studio, which he uses to recharge the batteries, but that system can go both ways: "He could run his whole house off of his car battery," says Gutzmer. "It's so much bigger than most people's solar systems batteries who are off the grid."
The short doc captures just enough of Merrifield's personality. Here he is, a wise-looking 70-something man with long silver hair and a bandana around his head, wearing a cool black leather jacket, driving a sleek red soft-top convertible Jaguar. His love of art shows with the curvaceous hood, the wooden dash and all the attention made to every bolt and wire. Gutzmer says that part of Merrifield's philosophy is that art is essential to our everyday designs; you make cars beautiful as well as efficient, and people won't be so quick to throw them away.
The documentary recently showed at the Electric Car Conversion Convention in Missouri, and Merrifield displayed the sun jag, which was one of just a couple classic cars there. He was a "fish out of water" among the techies, Gutzmer says, but after the film screened he told Gutzmer he felt like a rock star. It also got him a chance to race the sun jag against other electric cars around a track. As it turns out, tech geeks aren't the only ones excited by cutting-edge electric cars. The sun jag is the kind of car drag racers drool over because of the torque and the way it swiftly takes off without spinning its tires.
Gutzmer, inspired by Merrifield, hopes to build his own electric car soon.
"If Heyoka can do it in his art studio and garage, anyone can do it," says Gutzmer. "There's a movement of people doing this and we're not waiting for Chevy or Ford or anybody else."
Sun Jag shows at the CINE film festival at the Roxy Theater, Thu., Oct. 25, at 10:30 AM and Fri., Oct. 26, at 5:30 PM. The Friday screening is part of a Montana filmmakers and films reception, and Merrifield will bring the sun jag to show. Go to the CINE film page for more info.