Smoke ’em if You Got ’em

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

In the same way that some former Western North Carolina tobacco farms are being repurposed through crop diversification, Clark Whittington transformed Midcentury cigarette-vending machines into experimental zones for beginning art collectors. Whittington’s trademarked Art-o-mat art-vending machines turned 20 a year ago; since 1997, the Winston-Salem based artist/entrepreneur has wrangled a niche art collective wherein old cigarette machines, long outlawed in public spaces, are refurbished and set up to dispense miniature works of art.

The notion became addictive long before the upcycled craze gained wide appeal. Whittington reports to Asheville Made that Art-o-mat has been a full-time endeavor since 2003. He and his crew have installed machines everywhere from the Smithsonian to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Others are in much more out-of-the-way venues.

Each machine, says Whittington, “has its own personality.” Locally, there’s an Art-o-mat at the Pillar Rooftop Bar in Asheville and a more accessible one at Garage on 25 in Fletcher, where pieces by regional, national, and international artists fill the slots. (Mike Locke of Tryon is a favorite.)

One of the business’ partners, Susan Brady, notes that “The Art-o-mat fits in perfectly with the theme of the Garage,” where 80 contributing vendors make and repurpose home décor, furnishings, and accessories. 

“Ours is right when you enter the store,” Brady notes. “There are Art-o-mat ‘groupies’ who will come to visit The Garage just because of [the machine].  Others have no idea what it is, but then you see a smile come over their faces, [as if to say], ‘Look what someone has done to an old cigarette machine!’”

The price to pull out a piece of art remains $5,
dispensed via token from the hosting venue. Whittington notes that some Art-o-mat artists have scored solo exhibits after being “discovered” through the machine — although smashing success for individual contributors was never the main goal. “We’re inviting people to be more involved in their art community,” says Whittington. 

As a concept, though, Art-o-mat has been covered by every top-tier media outlet imaginable. “When we do get press,” says Whittington, “we’re right up there with Shepard Fairey.”

            — M.J. MacAodh

Garage on 25, 3461 Hendersonville Road (aka US 25), Fletcher. For more information, call 828-376-0198 or see The Garage on 25 on Facebook.

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