by Suzanne Ball
When cigarette vending machines were being banned in public places, AAA Member Clark Whittington had an idea. In 1997, the artist did a one-man exhibit at a local coffeehouse in Winston-Salem. With a discarded-but-repurposed cigarette machine, he created an interactive work to sell his photography. For a dollar, customers could get a piece of original art.
It was supposed to be a temporary display, but the owner asked if she could keep it. Clark agreed and invited other artists to participate…and Art-O-Mat was born.
Art-0-Mat in Alburquerque
Clark grew up knowing he wanted to be an artist. But he also knew he had to eat and pay bills. He graduated from college in 1988 having studied graphic design for his head and fine art for his heart. He has always believed that everyone should have access to art beyond a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Nights.
About the time that businesses were getting tax-credits for destroying cigarette vending machines, Clark noticed that a close friend had what Clark called “a Pavlovian response” to the sound of crinkling cellophane; when his friend heard it, he headed straight to a vending machine. A light bulb went on in Clark’s brain: Maybe there was a way to salvage those mid-century machines and sell original art.
Clark developed the Art-O-Mat concept, making each refurbished machine its own piece of art. He has been able to pursue his concept full-time since 2003, without any grants or outside support. He admits that he was idealistic at the outset, but has stayed true to his concept of “putting art in people’s hands.”
As a nod to his friend’s automatic reaction when hearing cellophane, Artists in Cellophane is the name of the collective of creatives whose original works supply the current 170 machines. Clark has worked with artists of all ages. “The oldest was almost 100!”
Clark constantly seeks new artists to join him in his mission; currently over 400 artists from around the world provide art, crafts, jewelry, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and textiles of an astounding variety. And he’s happy to consider other artists. “We need art and want to work with anyone who wants to help others experience art in our world.”
To join the collective, artists submit a sample of their work. The only restriction is that each piece must be the size of a cigarette pack or fit in a box that’s the size of a cigarette pack, so that it can be dispensed easily. And, yes, they are wrapped in cellophane. For each $5 piece sold, the artist receives $2.50, the host site gets $1.50, and the final $1 goes to Clark.
Each Art-O-Mat vending machine is uniquely-designed, thanks to Clark Whittington. You’ll find them in cafes, coffeehouses, bars, museums—even supermarkets—where you live. Visit ArtOMat.org to locate a vending machine near you.
Carolina residents are especially fortunate. The East Coast has the greatest number of retired cigarette vending machines. And Clark Whittington realized their historical worth. He sought them out, with the intent of making them into a way of “putting art into people’s hands.”
North Carolina residents currently have 47 Art-O-Mat machines locations, 25 of them in Winston-Salem. South Carolina residents can find two spots in Charleston, one each in Spartanburg, Columbia and Greenville. Clark stresses that he wants each machine to be part of the community where it’s placed, encouraging people to have more art in their lives.
When you happily find an Art-O-Mat, you’ll see brief descriptions of the type of art for purchase: Such a choice! The machines have been updated to accept cash; the current price is $5 for an original piece of art. Bring $1 or $5 bills.
After you insert your money, you will have two minutes to choose the artist. Then comes the thrill of pulling the knob. Out pops your very own one-of-a-kind creation. Most have details about the artist, including a way to contact them or visit their website. Voila! You’re now an art collector!
Art-O-Mat mixed media art
Clark Whittington is a AAA Member who has always enjoyed road trips as a way to explore the country. His advice: “Get off that interstate!” He goes on to explain that he’s always loved collecting things during his travels, but what’s most important is “seeing America on the ground.”
He still drives the same 1988 Ford F150 truck that he’s used to deliver the Art-O-Mat machines. It’s on its third engine, but Clark has no plans to trade it in. He takes good care of it, trusting AAA for help along the way.
With Art-O-Mat machines all over the country (plus a few international spots), it’s fun to seek them out during trips. Include them when planning a trip. Find a diner and stop for meal. Visit an art gallery. Pop into a historic hotel lobby. Bypass national coffee chains and relax in a local coffeehouse. The hunt will take you to interesting places, guaranteed. Here’s the gallery of machines across the country.
For $5, you’ll get more than another cheap magnet or mug. You get to be a participant in Clark Whittington’s dream of bringing authentic art to everyone.