With the Art-O-Mat®, art becomes accessible for everyone

By Mary-Kate Appanaitis

At Carrburritos, customers come to buy burritos, margaritas, tacos, and, if they know to look for it, artwork.

Located in the back of the restaurant sits an Art-O-Mat®.  It’s a restored cigarette machine that now doles out pieces of art, imprinted on wooden blocks or contained in small cardboard boxes, replaced every few weeks as customers purchase the available works of art.

Ranging from miniature sculptures to pieces of jewelry, to small wooden canvases painted in oils, each piece of art that comes from the machine is handmade and one-of-a-kind.

The small machine is part of a collection, with the Carrboro location being just one of over 175 venues that host an Art-O-Mat®. Spanning North America, Europe, and Australia, each machine originates from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and from the mind of artist Clark Whittington.

“It’s gone far beyond anything I ever imagined,” Whittington said. “The massive response was nothing I expected.”

In the late 1980’s, Whittington said a friend had a “Pavlovian response” to the sound of crinkling cellophane. The sound of a bag crackling sent him directly to a vending machine for a snack. Whittington became intrigued with the concept of vendable art. He envisioned that such a machine could bring the ease of a midday pick-me-up to the difficult to attain world of art that he had worked in for years.

Growing up as a lone artist

Born and raised in Concord, North Carolina, Whittington grew up immersed in the environment of the rural mill town. While most of his neighbors and family worked in the mills, Whittington’s interest veered toward art. Though mocked throughout his childhood and young-adult life for pursuing something “weird and unimportant,” his mother, a self-taught artist herself, encouraged him to follow his passion.

While he could practice art all he wanted, finding accessible art in his hometown was difficult. The closest galleries were in Charlotte, North Carolina, and were not open to just any passerby who wanted to enjoy artwork in the city.

“There was always an air of pretentiousness in those galleries,” Whittington said. “They didn’t want people to just appreciate their art, they wanted people who would come in and buy it. People who were ‘dressed to the nines’ and had their wallets out. And that wasn’t me at all.”

After graduating from Appalachian State University in 1988 with degrees in both Arts and Graphic Design, Whittington opened his own gallery in downtown Charlotte with the help of two college friends. The Rococo Fish Gallery was brought to life in the North Davidson Arts District and was the first gallery in Charlotte with no price tags connected to the art installations.

Working towards art accessibility 

Whittington’s goal from the start of his career was to create art that gave all sides of the spectrum of his community the chance to experience the gallery. No dress codes, no judgement for those who came in, and no focus on money being made. He collaborated with other local artists in the city who wanted a space to show off their own works, giving a stage to artists who would not have had the name recognition to be placed into other established galleries in Charlotte.

Whittington worked simultaneously as a graphic designer to pay the bills, running the gallery in his free time out of the office. He was committed to keeping his work-life separate from his art, a strong believer that art should not be associated with making money but should instead be focused on spreading love of the arts to people in his community.

This philosophy remained with Whittington.  As rent increased in the gallery, and the expenses of marriage and children became more pressing, Whittington took a step back from creating, focusing purely on graphic design work to provide for his growing family. It wasn’t until inspiration struck him with the concept of the Art-O-Mat® after moving to Winston-Salem that he once again was able to create art of his own consistently.

Art-O-Mat® takes the world

The first Art-O-Mat® machine was put into commission in 1997, at a solo art exhibit in a cafe in Winston-Salem featuring Whittington’s artwork. The machine, restored through hand-painting by Whittington and filled with miniature prints of his own creation, was a hit. Art was available on-demand for the low price of five dollars, and the citizens of Winston-Salem were captivated with the concept.

Restaurants, bars, hotels, and cafes all around the city began requesting an installment of their own Art-O-Mat® for their businesses, and Whittington became overwhelmed with the amount of art in demand. He reached out to local artists who were interested in collaborating on the project, and the company Artists in Cellophane was initiated, launching its first set of Art-O-Mat®’s.

The cigarette machines were relatively easy to source for the project, as they had recently become banned in the city of Winston-Salem and were being given away for little to no price. Whittington and his team painstakingly refurbished each of them with a freshly painted exterior, and handmade each of the pieces of art displayed on the blocks distributed from the machine.

Whittington watched as his creation of the Art-O-Mat® enabled people of all levels of income and art expertise to purchase and possess their very own custom piece of art. With the low cost, art reached communities previously unable to afford the experience of owning one-of-a-kind work; communities Whittington identified with personally, after being considered an outsider in his childhood. Too artsy for the people in Concord to understand, yet not artistic enough to be accepted in Charlotte.

Sticking to what matters most

Within only a few years, Art-O-Mat®’s had expanded far beyond the city line of Winston-Salem, and Whittington shifted to working entirely with the company, foregoing his day job of graphic design. As the machines were sent first across the country and then internationally, Whittington had to expand his artist list to keep up with the increasing demand for art supply. In each location an Art-O-Mat® was placed, he contacted local artists to recruit volunteers interested in creating art for the masses. Each piece of submitted artwork is sent to Whittington and his team at Artists in Cellophane and approved by him before being sent out for installation into the Art-O-Mat®’s.

“Our Art-O-Mat® is definitely something that people come back for,” said Sophie Thurber, an employee at Carrburritos. “We have to send out for more art every few weeks, and we aren’t even offering in-person dining right now.”

Though his work has infiltrated some of the most highly regarded art galleries in the country, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Whittington remains humbly committed that the art he creates is truly for everyone. He chooses his venues and artists for the Art-O-Mat®’s carefully, to ensure the people and places he works with are on the same page about what matters most in his work: the community’s ability to experience art, regardless of their social or economic status.

“This is an art project, not a venture capital scheme,” he said. “My work has always been about making art equitable, and that’s really what I try to do.”


Edited by Eva Hagan