Art exhibit grows out of cigarette vending machine

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 7, 2013

STATESVILLE (AP) — For the next few weeks, passersby of the Historic Vance Hotel building may notice something that looks kind of familiar and yet very different.
The experience of some will be of a vaguely nostalgic nature and most with even the slightest inclination toward the curious will want to know more about what appears to be an old cigarette machine all fancied up and labeled with the neologism “Art-o-mat” in a font that may evoke images of 1950s-era roadsters.
The sky-blue apparatus is, indeed, a cigarette vending machine. At least it used to be. Now it’s art: art that dispenses art.
This kind of re-purposing of the keenly common into the obscurely exceptional and the clearly dangerous into the artistically effusive is the brainchild of Winston-Salem artist Clark Whittington.
Anyone over the age of about 35 or so can recall with clarity seeing the handle-tug type cigarette machines just about everywhere they went. In an environment in which the jury was still supposedly out on the real dangers of tobacco, the United States was a nation that loved its butts and if an establishment of almost any sort did not have cigarette sales as part of its retail business, a cigarette machine could almost certainly be found somewhere on the premises.
But that all started to change about two decades ago when state and federal legislators stopped pretending the inherent health risks of inhaling cigarette smoke were of a dubious nature.
Bans about where folks could smoke started small and then became almost all encompassing. And states got serious about age restrictions regarding the purchasing of a pack of smokes and other accesses to their availability.
Among the results of such legal actions was a sudden surfeit of the once-ubiquitous cigarette-devices, which had begun getting stock-piled in warehouses. And that’s when the wheels inside Whittington’s head began churning.
“I started this as a one-time art piece,” Whittington recalled as he was working on getting one of his Art-o-mat machines just right at the Vance last week. “That is that the machine itself was a piece of art. And, actually, I do consider the machines art pieces. I sign most of them and I think of them as works of art.”
There are now about 100 Art-o-mat machines throughout the United States and three other countries (Australia, Austria and Canada). And as they will be during a larger exhibit that begins next month at the Iredell Museums Gallery on Meeting Street in Statesville, the machines have also been displayed in venues as venerated as the Smithsonian.
But the one that will be on display at the Vance through the rest of the year and much of January is actually coming back home.
Whittington purchased the machine from a source who said that he (the seller) bought it from owners of 90-year-old hotel during an auction.
Iredell Museums Executive Director Debbie Newby had to be sold on the Art-o-mat idea by her assistant, Maria Fox, and a trip to the Whittington’s shop in the Twin City.
“When Maria first told me about it, I couldn’t quite get my head around it. It’s kind of hard to imagine until you see it,” Newby said. “But after visiting Clark’s art studio and meeting some of the contributing artists, I got really excited and I think it’s going to be an exciting exhibit.”
Museums board member Steve Hill agreed.
“We’re all excited about it.” Hill said as Whittington was setting up at the Vance. “And I just think it is really cool.”
The endgame in the Art-o-mat project is twofold: allow artists a place to “display” and sell their work; and get real, original art into the hands of everyday people.
“Don’t go ‘round artless,” is the name of Whittington’s Facebook page for Art-o-mat and it is the sentiment he most hopes the machines convey.
“I want it to be able to reach people who think art has that stigma of being too expensive or too exclusive,” he said.
But don’t be looking for works by Picasso or Matisse. And covering that huge bare wall in the living room is probably not going to happen following an Art-o-mat stop. The works are almost exclusively those of lesser-known and budding artists and they are smaller in size.
How small?
You guessed it: about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
To learn more about the exhibit contact the Iredell Museums at 704-873-4734.