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Nearly 25 years after their inception, Art-o-mat machines remind us how important art is to humankind.

Nearly 25 years after their inception, Art-o-mat machines remind us how important art is to humankind.

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Twenty-three years into his project of converting old cigarette vending machines into dispensers of tiny pieces of original art — called Art-o-mats — Clark Whittington, founder of Artists in Cellophane, is more convinced than ever of the valuable role art plays in our lives and communities.

“Art is the most necessary unnecessary thing our culture has,” he says.

Whittington stumbled into this business in 1997 when he held an art show at Penny Universitie (a café in Winston-Salem) that included a converted vending machine dispensing black and white photos for $1. The idea was inspired by a friend who mentioned that just the crinkle of cellophane made him want to visit the nearest vending machine for a snack or some cigarettes. When the owner of the café asked to keep the machine, he enlisted various local artists to supply the tiny art.

Today, about 400 artists from 10 different countries supply art for around 170 Art-o-mat machines throughout the country. In 2018 alone, 93,000 pieces were sold.

“That’s a lot of positive interactions,” Whittington says. “Art-o-mat has reached people and helped them make art part of their lives. That’s our core mission: getting art into people’s hands and making it affordable. I’m really happy knowing these pieces are out there making a difference.”

Inspiration for trying times

Since he began working full-time on Art-o-mat in 2003, Whittington has looked for ways to expand. From adding new artists — “they bring new energy to the project,” he says — to finding and refurbishing new machines to creating art that can be delivered right to your door with his Art-o-cartons, he works to sustain and add to the business every day.

This year’s pandemic has slowed business down, as some venues that host machines have been closed, but Whittington is happy to say that he hasn’t laid off any employees. Some machines, like the ones at Ballad Brewing in Danville, Virginia, and Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, are doing brisk business; Art-o-cartons — including the Movie Night Limited Edition with art that was to be sold at RiverRun International Film Festival — have revitalized the business while bringing a pick-me-up to people spending a lot more time at home.

“Art plays a huge role in difficult times,” Whittington says. “Psychologically you need to be engaged and have things capture your imagination and have fresh ideas. Art can be something that connects spiritually and really enriches your life.”

And his contributing artists have not let their extra time go to waste.

“Artists have used the downtime to load us up with art,” he says. “They’ve used this time to create.”

The transformative power of art

More than two decades have passed since Whittington created that first Art-o-mat, and it’s still fresh and exciting to him.

“I consider what we do as patriotic,” he says. “Our culture is based on ideas and we need to stay focused on that. We need to ask how we can keep moving forward. Art is on the leading edge of that. Art, music, writing, these are the things we as Americans, as humans, are good at. We create.”

Whittington is proud that people are buying and living with the handmade pieces of art he is privileged to introduce to the world.

“There is a stigma of art being only for the elite,” he says. “We have introduced many people to art who don’t always get a chance to own original art. That’s powerful.”

In fact, one person who bought her first piece of art just five years ago is now hosting an Art-o-mat machine herself. The positive energy continues to flow.

And the artists he represents feel good about being part of this project.

“They get it. They understand that it’s about distribution and positive reach. That’s what keeps me going every day. The core mission is there without all the crazy pressures of the world we live in,” Whittington says. “It’s truly about the art, the connection between the artist, and the person who buys it.”

That connection is keenly felt in times like these, and Whittington hopes that people will continue to seek solace in beauty and creativity. And he hopes Art-o-mat host venues will weather this season and reopen their doors soon.

As for the host of that first Art-o-mat, it’s changed hands a few times: Penny Universitie then Mary’s Of Course, and Mary’s Gourmet Diner, and now is a part of Mojito Latin Soul Food. But the Art-o-mat continues to remind us that, no matter how many changes come our way, creativity can carry us into a brighter and more vibrant future.

“If you want to experience something that gives a positive response, that is what art can do,” Whittington says. “It doesn’t have to do anything other than exist.”

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