My first experience with Art-o-mat was at SECCA, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, in Winston-Salem, NC. I was a young, single mother with two small girls and even then, art was a major part of my life. Our life. I had taken the girls to the museum because I wanted to expose them to art beyond what Mom did at home. SECCA doesn’t charge admission fees, so it was the perfect place to take them outside the borders of our small rural community, and it fit my budget nicely. I can’t remember the exhibits that day. I can’t tell you what we had for lunch, though it is likely we packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home and found a park. We did that often. What I can tell you is that after we walked out of the gift shop that the museum no longer houses, and after I had told the kids no on several occasions when they asked for this coloring book or that art kit, we were faced with an Art-o-mat machine. As we approached the shiny apparatus, my head began to wrap around what it was, a refurbished cigarette machine that dispensed original works of art the size of a pack of cigarettes for the price of five dollars.
I could afford this. I stood digging in my purse to gather and count change, to come up with enough money to purchase a piece of art as my girls ooed and aahed and pressed their fingers on the glass, their small faces illuminated by the lights from the machine and their excitement. I let them insert the five dollar bill I changed out back at the gift shop and then pull the knob. The kerplunk from the falling block had a satisfying sound and induced a squeal from them as they reached in and pulled out the artwork. I decided then and there that Art-o-mat was on my bucket list. I wanted to be in that machine someday. The artwork was carried around for weeks and taken to school for show and tell; it sat on the shelf in my living room, then computer desk in later years. Sadly, I lost it in the last move because I can’t find it anywhere. However, I am now working on my first set of blox (what Clark Whittington, owner and initiator/ designer/creator of Art-o-mat, calls the small works of art).
My new involvement with the project seeded a desire to connect with some of the other “Artists in Cellophane” and to find out more about Art-o-mat, beyond what you read on the website and previous articles. I decided there was no better way to do that than to write the article you are now reading. I connected with the artists first. I chose three that are local to me so I could meet with them face to face and because I was already familiar with their larger works of art, having seen them in the local galleries in the Winston-Salem arts district.
I met Patrick Harris at Delurk Gallery in Winston for the interview. Patrick has a calm and quiet demeanor about him, almost stoic but not quiet. I was quick to discover it belies his passion for art. Patrick has been involved with the project “five years or so, maybe longer” and has a unique perspective on what Art-o-mat means.
“I love the project; I think it’s brilliant. All these cigarette machines are going out of use, and he is finding a way of using them instead of them going in a scrap pile, and on top of that, he is promoting artists and promoting art. I think a lot of times people get intimidated by art in art galleries, and he is putting these in places where you can get a nice piece of art for five dollars, and you don’t have to be intimidated by the price or even the size of the art. I know that with a lot of people, Art-o-mat is the first piece of art they will ever buy, which is pretty cool. It breaks them in, and kids love it. It gets them interested in art early.”
All Art-o-mat machines are designed differently as individual works of art themselves. Patrick’s favorite machine is located at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, or perhaps, his favorite is his own. Art-o-mat creator Clark Whittington has invited some of the artists involved with the project for an extended period of time to assist on a larger level by designing their own machines. Patrick described his as a “Hot Rod Lincoln” machine.
[Patrick Harris’ Hot Rod Lincoln machine, located at Utah Divisions of Art and Museums in Salt Lake City, Utah, as shown on the Art-o-mat website (Photo 1). Patrick Harris delivers his machine to Delurk Gallery in Winston-Salem, the headquarters for Art-o-mat (Photo 2)].
Abe Lincoln has a particular significance for Harris. After his first six series of blox, which were zombie portraits of icons, stars, personal friends, and animals, The Walking Dead took off and Patrick took a break, thinking the zombie series now seemed too mainstream.
[Patrick Harris’ zombie portrait series. Photos: Pat Berryhill]
He came back with a set of 50 portraits of Abe Lincoln. On the surface, it may seem an odd leap, but the story behind the blocks renders clarity.
He has since moved on, having gotten the closure he needed at the time with that project. Harris continues to focus on portraiture in his art, both large and small. His most recent series is no exception. He is now working on a black and white series that incorporates the façades of some of Winston-Salem’s iconic buildings.
Working within the confines of Art-o-mat’s physical dimensions helped Harris to grow. “It’s a challenge to take what you do and make it work in such a small space.” But being involved with the project has brought good exposure to Harris’ work, too. He casually mentioned his involvement in the Art-o-mat show at the Smithsonian for the project’s 15th year anniversary. Harris is appreciative of the experiences and opportunities that have come as a result of his association with Art-o-mat, but it runs much deeper for him. He feels strongly that the project cannot be separated from its creator and spoke warmly and openly about his friendship with Whittington, whom Harris feels doesn’t often get the credit in the community that he or Art-o-mat deserves. “I love Clark. Clark is a really good friend and a really good person, and I love his art besides Art-o-mat that he never shows anymore.”
He also feels that you can’t base the art on the cost of the blox. “I hear some people talk, and a lot of people complain they don’t make a lot of money off of it and they put a lot of work into it. Some people don’t do their best work for the Art-o-mat… [S]ome people in the art community almost talk down to me because of what I do with Art-o-mat, and they don’t think it’s worth their time. That’s not what the project is about at all. But I think it’s like everything else: what you put into it is what you get out of it.”
Dennis Wells first saw an Art-o-mat machine in an art venue in Rocky Mount, NC. He then lived in Halifax County and wasn’t aware the machine was part of a series. When he moved to Winston-Salem, the headquarters of Art-o-mat, he kept seeing them everywhere. Wells met Whittington when he entered Delurk at one of the first gallery hops he attended in the arts district. Things progressed quickly from there with Wells finishing his first set of blox in the time span of a couple weeks. “I was really excited about it and new to Winston-Salem and trying to get involved in things, meet people, and I saw it as a good opportunity.”
Through his time involved in the project, Wells’ subsequent series have changed dramatically.
“The first fifty I did were prints of some of my larger works, my pen and inks. I did limited runs and hand numbered them. By the time I finished my second set, I realized with the time I was putting into making the prints I could do originals and it wouldn’t be a large difference in the amount of time involved in creating the pieces. I did several series of black and white pen and ink on the blox. I then transitioned to mini acrylic paintings in color. This last set I am turning in and showing you today? I actually pushed the blox together to make a large piece, an abstract, over that, and then pulled the blocks back apart and did miniature stencils on each one.”
Wells spoke of the opportunities the project provides to extend an artist’s reach beyond a local audience. “I attach a business card to each of my blox and clearcoat it so it stays on permanently. I have been contacted by people from DC, Washington state, Los Angeles, Louisiana. You know it’s really cool because it’s people that I would probably never get a chance to otherwise interact with, and they would never get to see my work.”
Wells insists the project isn’t beyond the grasp of artists at any age or level. “Anybody that is interested in it, it is accessible to them. If you have an idea you think would work, I would say try it and run with it. You know, send it in (protoype kit). It’s a lot of fun. Unless you are an absolute machine, I don’t know that you’ll ever get rich… But it’s a great way to try different things and experiment. It will get your work out there. I just think it’s a really cool concept, and I enjoy being a part of it and telling people about it.”
Chad Beroth has been with Art-o-mat for about four years and he also experienced the machines for the first time at SECCA with his daughters “not long after my family and I first moved to Winston from Massachusetts in 2006. My daughters and I used to vend art at SECCA often.” He, too, was unaware of the magnitude of the project and thought it was a singular machine until he began to see more around town. Beroth says he was initially drawn to Art-o-mat more as a consumer than as an artist.
“Art-o-mat is made of nostalgia, magic, and art. How could you not want to be a part of that?I remember walking past drab olive or brown colored versions of these machines everywhere I went as a kid. Art-o-mat’s founder, Clark Whittington, coated that childhood memory in flashy hotrod paint and filled it with an element of surprise, and art! When you’re a kid, there’s an ever present element of surprise in your life that pretty much disappears when you’re an adult–from Cracker Jacks, breakfast cereal, and Happy Meal surprises, to Christmas morning, to the vending machines you’d always hope to get something from when you were leaving the grocery store with your mom. (My quarters were always spent on my quest for a colorless/transparent SuperBall). I put 50¢ in one of those old grocery store-style machines at the mall a while back. I vended a Justin Bieber sticker. Yeah. Just wasn’t the same. Art-o-mat gives you that nostalgia and surprise, and the prize is original art. There’s nothing better than that.”
Beroth’s art is original. It takes you on a trip where you view things from outside the box. From his whimsical portraiture with a cynical twist to his series of haunting childlike works that express an undercurrent of mature themes and suspend you in a space that exists in the cracks between innocence and the knowledge of things sinister, he downsizes in scope but not impact and
places it upon his blox. Beroth has had commissions come in as a result of his involvement with Art-o-mat, but people collect his blox as well.
His new series of portraits based on the television show Breaking Bad has already received attention. Charles Baker, AKA Skinny Pete, from the show contacted Beroth to purchase the block bearing his portrait. Beroth and Art-o-mat rarely sell outside the machine, but this time they were happy to oblige.
So what about the man behind the project? Clark Whittington explains the origins of Art-o-mat and elaborates on the project in this short video.
Whittington, a busy man who is hard to tie down for an interview, stated that he didn’t like email interviews because he isn’t fond of the cut and paste journalism that seems to proliferate nowadays. “My responses end up looking canned. I would rather speak to someone and gauge things and go from there.” We interviewed via telephone while Whittington was at Delurk, working on a new machine. I could hear the clank of hammer on metal as, I imagined, he worked at beating out a dent. I soon discovered why so many of the artists, including myself, were initially unaware of the extent of the Art-o-mat project and its reach. Whittington is against advertising his work and actively pursuing venues for the machines. He chooses to let people who are interested come to him.
“I once had a machine in a venue, a college museum of a rather prestigious nature up north, and received a call to come remove the machine after hosting it for just two years. When I asked why, thinking it may be some issue with a needed repair, I was told by the curator that they no longer wanted the machine in the building because it seemed, to them, to have somewhat of a measured shelf life. So I went and got the machine, no further questions asked. I thought about that statement, and it is true but not in the way they implied. The so-called shelf life is my life. I am committed to Art-o-mat and the artists it represents, for the duration of my life. No matter what. You know, not everything in life is meant to be big, to blow up like the Beatles. There is a lot in life that is about small victories that matters… and art matters.”
Whittington recalled a favorite memory. When the first Art-o-mat machine was placed in a venue in Winston-Salem at a little restaurant called Mary’s Café, he was approached by a cop while he was delivering the machine. The officer–just a regular guy with a regular job and like so many of the people Whittington knew and loved growing up in Concord, NC, a mill town–approached and began to ask him about his machine. Whittington loves to talk to anyone who shows a genuine interest and doesn’t condescend, remembering all the hard-working individuals who helped him with his conceptual art along the way by showing him “a better tool to use for that” or “coming by just to see what (he) was building and helping out.”The officer looked at Whittington and said, “I think your art is right smart.” Whittington says it is the best compliment he has ever received, and he will never forget it.
Pat Berryhill is a junior at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC. She is seeking her Bachelor’s in creative writing and English. She has been published by Change Seven Magazine and Incunabula. Her artwork has shown at the Womble Carlyle Gallery at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts and Studio7. You can see her work at www.facebook.com/patpunkpop .