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Old cigarette machines now vend pocket-sized art

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For The State Journal

Anyone can be a patron of the arts thanks to Art-o-mat.

Art-o-mat machines are retired cigarette vending machines that have been converted to vend art in packages the size of cigarette packs.

"Our goal is to make people's experience with art positive from the get-go," said Art-o-mat founder Clark Whittington. "That has nothing to do with commerce. It's about the relationship. We're dealing with people who may have never bought art before and working against the idea that it's only for certain people. We're not uppity."

In 1997, Whittington was to have a solo art show in a North Carolina cafe. He got the idea to use an old cigarette vending machine to dispense wood blocks with his photographs attached for $1 each. When the exhibit ended, the venue owner liked the machine so much she kept it. And this social experiment in contemporary art appreciation was born.

Today, around 400 artists from 10 countries contribute their art to be distributed through Art-o-mat machines. The piece of art dispensed might be a pair of earrings made from bottle caps and playing cards, a necklace of semiprecious stones, paintings, fiber or fabric pieces or a carving. Cost is $5.

The only Art-o-mat in West Virginia is located in the 88 Restaurant & Lounge in the Bicentennial Inn in Buckhannon, Upshur County.

Its host is architect Bryson VanNostrand, who enjoys contemporary art in many forms. He runs a micro cinema in the basement of his firm in Buckhannon, showing foreign and avant-garde films.

"I have a very modern training in the design of buildings," VanNostrand said. "I enjoy modern art of all kinds. When I first came in contact with Art-o-mat I was in New York City. Immediately, I knew I wanted to bring Art-o-mat to Buckhannon."

In the Art-o-mat, one artist occupies a vertical column. At the bottom is a small square placard listing the artist and sometimes the type of art.

Some pieces are identical; others are unique but in the same style or theme.

One of VanNostrand's favorite artists makes hand-painted portraits of people from the '40s and '50s called Prom Dates. "They have crazy hairdos and funny eyeglass styles," he said. "This woman is doing a portrait off an entire page of people from an old yearbook. The machine has two separate columns of this artist: one for guys and one for girls.

"I get so much joy and laughter and pleasure out of different artists doing different conceptual things," VanNostrand said. "That's not to say all of Art-o-mat is strictly conceptual art. There are also a lot of handmade pieces there that are excellent and very well done. There are upwards of 30 new artists whose work I'll be stocking in the machine in the next few days."

At least one West Virginia artist, Suzan Morgan of Buckhannon, has contributed her hand-dyed and printed fabric art to Art-o-mat, but it's not currently stocked in a machine right now.

"I think it's all been sold," she said. "And I've been too busy with other art to make more."

For her first contribution, Morgan wrapped the blocks Whittington sent with fabric she printed with a human figure leaping into the air. On the bottom side of the block, she put a little information about her work, including how to contact her.

All of the buyers who got in touch with Morgan were on the West Coast.

"There was an 8- or 9-year-old boy who emailed me about how much he liked it," Morgan said. "It was really sweet to hear such a young person tell me how he enjoyed my art. That's the single best thing that has happened as a result of Art-o-mat for me."

It's an opportunity for artists to see their work sold in faraway places that would be difficult to get into otherwise. There are Art-o-mats in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, in Las Vegas and in the Smithsonian Institution.

"When it comes to having a machine I don't care where it is as long as it's appreciated," Whittington said. "And I don't care about the volume of sales as long as sales are happening and putting art in people's hands."

Artists who would like to be considered for the project or venues that would like to host an Art-o-mat machine should contact Whittington at http://www.artomat.org/contact/.