During the last 14 years, Clark Whittington's Art-o-mat machines have become permanent installation pieces at some of the nation's top museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The 45-year-old Central Cabarrus High School graduate converts vintage cigarette machines and repurposes them into engaging devices that vend original artwork for $5 a pull.
One of the Concord native's Art-o-mat machines will be on display in downtown Concord through October. Whittington has lived in Winston-Salem since 1997.
The machines work pretty much like the retired cigarette machines used to work. Patrons insert a golden token into the machine, choose a piece of art and pull the knob. What comes out is a cigarette-box-sized carton wrapped in cellophane. Inside, objects range from an earthenware olive-looking keychain, origami, small paintings or photographs. Some machines hold up to 22 pieces of art. The one in Concord holds nine.
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"It's cool to be in Concord, and even though people may not be tuned into what we're doing, we're putting these machines all over the country, and people are paying attention," said Whittington.
About 400 artists from 10 different countries contribute their art, which gets distributed to about 100 locations nationwide. North Carolina has nearly 20 machines. A portion of the Art-o-mat sales will benefit the arts council.
Whittington created the first Art-o-mat using a banned cigarette machine in 1997, during a solo art show in Winston-Salem. The machine sold his black-and-white photographs for $1 each. He made three machines his first year and now installs up to 20 machines per year. The machines are intended to be permanent, if not longtime, installation pieces, he said.
"Last year was a groundbreaking year with the installation of the machine at the Smithsonian and working with the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas," said Whittington. "It's been a lot of work, but our artists are seeing results. Things are made by hand and when demand is high, that's a mixed blessing for us. But we've been able to keep up. Most host sites order about 50 pieces of art to stock the machine; the Vegas location orders about 1,000.
"It's kind of hard to wrap your mind around," said Whittington. "There's a lot of work that goes into these before they get started. We pretty much have to take them down to the last bolt. But once you get them up and running they could last 100 years. They're meant to be here."
The art installation pieces vend not only art, but any idea.
"We take what we have to work with and bring something to the table," said Whittington. "It could be an invention, music.... In many cases, artists don't duplicate ideas. Even after 14 years, we're still amazed at what shows up."
Lin Barnhardt, the arts council's visual arts director, said getting a machine on display in Concord was a five-year effort.
"It's really a neat idea," said Barnhardt. "The whole exhibit is sort of centered around him; we built it around his machine. We've already restocked it (with art) three times."
The originality of the works is something an avid art collector can appreciate as well as someone new to collecting art.
"It's very well-made," said Barnhardt. "It's not like you're buying junk. You're buying something unique and clever. Clark planted a seed with this quirky idea, and it's just mushroomed."