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


Resident advisors find friendship in difficult times


By Eric Weir

Just before noon on Saturday, Aug. 21, a residential advisor wakes up on the third floor of Avery Residence Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He reaches for his phone after rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. The phone lights up with countless messages from a residential advisor staff group chat. He unlocks his phone and the messages relay the same key words: cluster, COVID-19, Avery Residence Hall.

Jose Rodriguez Gomez opens up his laptop to see the email regarding a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Avery and a mandate requiring every Avery resident get tested for the virus.

Gomez gets dressed as he tries to process what comes next while still half asleep.

“I was pretty sure I was safe and I think the part I was most worried about was mainly for the safety of my residents,” he said.

While clusters were always a possibility with a full campus of students, many were fearing a repeat of the previous year.  Students had been sent home weeks into the fall semester due to several clusters on campus.

Later that day, several of Gomez’s residents asked him if everyone was going to be sent home again and if the dorms would close.

Gomez said that he did not know.

A new semester, same pandemic

As UNC-CH reopens its campus to full in-person activities, several problems from the previous year have returned. Many students are navigating the mobs of students in the Pit for the first time, while some are still using maps to find Davis Library.

Some resident advisors are dealing with these issues just like regular students. On top of that, they must keep the community safe by enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols, build an atmosphere of trust among all residents, and dedicate hours at night to be ready at the ring of a phone to assist if someone needs help.

Bonds bring hope

Despite this, the RAs of the Carmichael and Parker neighborhood believe they have experienced relative success because the staff have become close friends.

The Parker and Carmichael neighborhood is situated along Stadium drive and consists of Avery, Carmichael, Parker, and Teague residence halls. The four dorms can hold up to a total of 1,051 students according to the Carolina Housing website. This semester, there are 19 RAs in the community.

Gomez was interested in becoming an RA since he transferred to UNC-CH as a junior in 2020. After sitting down with his previous RA to ask about the time allotment, stress, and experiences that come along with the job, he knew he would be an RA this year.

Under the sweltering heat of the late July sun, RAs began reporting for training. For Bassem Elbitar, it was his first steps on campus as a student. The sophomore was able to converse with fellow students without to pressing unmute.

For a week and a half, Elbitar socialized while the campus was still quiet. He learned that most of the RAs in the community were first-time RAs like him. He also met other RAs including Olivia Mwangi, his partner on the third floor of Carmichael.

Mwangi, Gomez, Elbitar, and the rest of the staff found themselves coordinating more than floor programs. Mwangi said that many RAs get dinner together regularly and meet up to go to every home soccer game. It is common to walk by the community desk in Carmichael and see three or four people behind the desk when two are scheduled to work at the desk at a time.

“It’s so weird, I’ve learned that this is not like the same environment in other like residential communities,” said Mwangi, “but we all hang out pretty much every day.”

A separate group chat for more friendly conversations was created and named “Chicken Parmichael,” according to Olivia. The name originated from RA training where during roll call, the RAs from the Parker and Carmichael neighborhood noticed the other community had a chant. The community of RAs huddled together and began to slap together a chant.

A furious debate took place before, within a few seconds, an RA said, “Let’s go Chicken Parmichael.” This was followed by a wave of laughter and agreement. When called, the Parker and Carmichael neighborhood shouted, “Chicken Parmichael!” followed by several chuckles.

Finding solutions together

One of the duties as an RA happens during the night. From 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., two RAs are ready for calls on the dorm hotline and walking rounds in each building.

This can sometimes be inconvenient and tiresome.

“I was on duty this Tuesday and had an exam on Wednesday,” said Gomez, “so I had to balance studying for my exam on Wednesday and staying up late to do my shift.”

The RAs have been able to balance this by relying on each other for help.

On Tuesday Aug. 21, Mwangi rolled out of bed with a fever after a restless night. She sweated through two midterms and a three-hour lab before returning to Carmichael and dreading her shift at the community desk that night.

Mwangi had taken this shift from another RA so they could study for an exam they had on Wednesday.

Mwangi texted some RAs to ask if someone who could take her shift because she was ready to pass out.

Gomez responded and stepped in to cover for Mwangi, even though he had an exam the next day. He insisted that he take the shift so Mwangi could get some rest.

The next day, Mwangi was at the community desk laughing over bad jokes when she received a text informing her that a resident was dealing with a mental health issue.

Elbitar and Mwangi responded to the incident and mentioned the resident struggling with mental health, but no specifics were given.  RAs are required to keep any personal information about their residents confidential.

Mwangi panicked and started crying. She struggled to calm down and focus on the next steps.

“In a situation like this, we’re trained for it,” said Mwangi, “but once it happens you never really know how to react.”

Veteran RA Fabryce Joseph began calming Mwangi down. Joseph reassured Mwangi and walked her through what she needed to do, who she needed to call, and how to inform the RA who was on duty.

With help from her staff members, Olivia was able to assist the distressed resident.

On that Friday, the RA staff were able to go get dinner as friends, knowing they would be able to deal with whatever problem that came their way.


Edited by Eva Hagan