The bright blue school bus lumbers down Ditmars Boulevard like an old elephant, treading slow and steady.
When it reaches Astoria Park, it eases itself into an ample parking place by the water.
The doors open, and the unconventional driver of this unconventional vehicle steps into the sunlight, smiling.
Annalisa Iadicicco is an artist, and the bus is what she calls her “living and breathing mobile art gallery.”
The Blue Bus Project, which brings art to New York City’s underprivileged communities, is her biggest and most public production.
Annalisa, who is from Italy, spent the first decade of her life in the village of Bellona outside Naples. When her father moved to New York City for work, her mother moved Annalisa and her older sister to the city of Anzio, which is near Rome.
Up until that moment, Annalisa thought she was going to be a dancer.
“I was a little ballerina, but I stopped when we relocated,” says Annalisa. “I had to restart my life – it was difficult.”
Although she had always been creative and clever – she made her own outfits – it wasn’t until she moved to New York City, a decade later, that she honed her artistic talent.
“My parents had a lot of friends who were artists, and they collected their paintings,” she says. “So I was exposed to art even though I wasn’t doing it.”
After high school, she joined her father in Greenwich Village.
“I fell in love with it at first sight,” she says.
She focused her newly eager eyes on photography, taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the International Center of Photography.
“I was attracted to pieces of rusted metal I found in the street,” she says. “I felt they described who I was. I also went back to my roots – to Bellona, where I took photos of farms and animals. I combined my photos with the metals and found objects.”
For several years, she worked in the film industry as a location scout but shortly after 9/11 decided to focus exclusively on her art. She does freelance photography projects and has a steady job teaching art in after-school classes.
“I can’t just do one thing,” she says. “I get bored.”
In 2016, as part of her quest never to be bored, Annalisa decided she wanted to make her art more accessible to people.
She didn’t know how she was going to do that, but when she saw the blue bus parked by her house, she couldn’t get it out of her mind.
As she biked by it day after day, she realized that it would be a wonderful vehicle for carrying out her plan.
So she put a note on its windshield that said, “If you are selling the bus, give me a call.”
Nine months and $2,500 later, The Blue Bus Project was born.
The 1997 blue bus, which is painted red inside and has beaded bamboo curtains at its windows, is funky, fun and politically on pointe.
The side stop sign on the exterior, an Annalisa art piece, is encircled by images of black revolvers. The other signs – “Come In, We’re Closed” and “No Under-Standing Any Time” — also throw conventional wisdom under the bus.
When it’s parked, a sunglasses-wearing mannequin steps into the driver’s seat; she may or may not be the owner of the jeans-clad legs lounging in the back.
There’s a fabric and feathered rooster roosting on the front windshield, and a paper fish is swimming over the driver’s shoulder.
The blue bus is a cranky contraption; it has introduced Annalisa to numerous mechanics. Up until recently, it had been plagued with massive rust spots.
Its latest difficulty: The heater caught a cold the minute the weather got chill.
Annalisa, whose venture is financed by grants and commissions, has driven the bus to a variety of venues, including the Museum of the Moving Image and Socrates Sculpture Park, holding free public participatory programs and workshops ranging from dance performances to art exhibitions.
Working with other artists, she’s taught people the value of recycling by having them decorate a papier-mâché tree with flowers they created from found objects. And she has deepened the appreciation of music by having people create sounds using everyday objects then turning them into recorded tunes.
“Every time I do these projects and see how joyful they make people, it brings tears to my eyes,” she says.
Annalisa sees the blue bus as a driver of art and community engagement.
“It has the power to bring people – the public, artists and educators — together,” she says.
Someday, Annalisa would like to have a fleet of blue buses if not all over the country then at least all over New York City.
“I’ll keep driving until it happens,” she says.
She positions herself behind the steering wheel and holds her breath as she turns the key in the ignition.
Will it start up this time?
After several seconds of silence, the engine leaps to life.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at NRuhling@gmail.com, @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling