Among the things that I remember fondly from my smoking phase, back in the late 80's, are cigarette vending machines. In particular, I remember the one at Commerce Casino where my friends and I would go listen to "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" blaring loudly from a jukebox while we drank and smoked. I loved the anonymity that a vending machine provided. I just pulled on the lever and no one needed to know that I picked Newport Menthols over Virginia Slims even if we had come a long way, baby! I was smitten by the vending machine.
These machines started being retired from public spaces in the mid 90's. Imagine my delight when two years ago as a late thirty-something touring the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, I spotted one, next to the gift shop. My youngest daughter, Xitlali, who was five at the time, saw it first.
"what the heck is this machine, mama?"
--"Ahhh, young grasshopper, this is a....a.....a?"
Upon closer inspection I realized I was staring at a vending machine that instead of dispensing cigarettes, dispensed art. An art vending machine? Was this an installation in itself? But where was the description? Who was the artist? How did this work? Who thought of this? Could anyone pull on the lever? And could this be even better than Homies? I had to find out!
I rushed back to the gift store, and like a Chicana Scheherazade bombarded the attendant with a thousand and one questions. His enthusiasm for what he told me was an Art-o-mat® was infectious. He explained that these Art-o-mat® machines were scattered across the country. Each dispensing works of art by different artists. The work is mini-sized, the size of a cigarette pack (ingenious!) and the cost is only five dollars and tax.
I purchased five tokens from the store and asked my daughter Gaby to join us. I was buying some art and damned if I wasn't going to inculcate in my daughters the beauty of owning an original work of art. We placed our hands on the smooth, knobby lever and pulled with all our might. With each pull, we waited in anticipation for the melodious clunk as each piece dropped to the bottom receptacle. This was not only a visual, but an auditory experience and once we had it in our hands it was a tactile one as well. In every sense it involved all the senses.I let the kids each pick one and because I am the boss, and life isn’t fair I got three to their one. My favorite was a pewter life-size reproduction of a saltine cracker by an artist named Herbert Hoover.
After experiencing the Art-o-mat® in Sacramento I became its devotee. I love that it makes art accessible to anyone as it can be found in museums, as well as health food stores, public libraries, and even hair salons. I also like that it's very egalitarian in that all artwork can be acquired for the same price regardless of whether the artist is emerging or established.
The idea was first conceived by Clark Whittington of Winston-Salem, NC and originally created as an installation. In 1997, Artists in Cellophane (A.I.C.) was formed to become the sponsoring organization of Art-o-mat® and further develop the concept of taking art and "repackaging" it to make it a part of daily life. Today, there are more than 400 artists represented in 90 different art-o-mats across the country.
Whenever I visit a new place I check to see if there is an Art-o-mat® nearby and make it a point to stop by and acquire new pieces to add to my collection. I have amassed a pretty unique art collection that is a fun conversation starter and lets me learn about local as well as international artists. One of the newer artists in cellophane is Dhimas Santos Baez, whom I recently befriended on facebook and hails from the Dominican Republic. Some of his work has beautiful, whimsical, Chagallesque qualities. I promise to write more about Dhimas on a future column when I become more familiar with his oeuvre. In the meantime, here is a picture to whet your appetite. I hope to see more Raza join A.I.C. as this is a great way to have your work reach a wider audience. To learn more about Art-o-mat® and to find a location to experience one I invite you to visit the website: http://www.artomat.org/