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Coins in, art out 

When cigarette machines are outlawed, cigarette machine owners become artists. Since 1997, the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based artist Clark Whittington has been converting abandoned cigarette vendors into self-contained galleries. He refurbishes each machine and stocks it with cigarette pack-sized artworks — each to be sold for $5. Artists send submissions from around the country.

Two years ago, local artist Took Gallagher made a deal with Whittington to bring one of the machines to Michigan. Gallagher told Whittington what she wanted in her Art-o-mat. What she got is great.

The machine is painted in metallic lime green and looks almost like an amusement park ride. Being a 1950s-style cigarette vendor, there's a large mirror covering its top third — the kind of decoration that would invite teenage delinquents of the past to admire themselves using their new purchase. The Art-o-mat logo glows below this. At the bottom of the machine is a quarter-size hole with a twin on the back. Apparently, someone, at some time, decided they didn't like cigarette machines. So they shot it.

Ultimately though, with any vending machine, it's what's inside that counts. And this is a mixed bag. Emily Long's black and white pinhole photography and Tiffany O'Brien's Freaks — a series inspired partly by carnivals — reflect their sales environment with humor and confidence.

Woodie Anderson takes the size constraints imposed by the medium and circumvents them. Anderson's Spam series employs heavy cardstock to make collapsible art. Unfolded, his pieces offer a monochromatic and enigmatic noir comic book view of the world.

At the other side of the spectrum sits Herbert Hoover's Cracker series. Hoover may be a talented pewter caster— he made the new knobs this Art-o-mat sports, but here he shows the worst of what happens when artists create factory-imitating products. Each "Cracker" is exactly that — a saltine dipped in pewter.


The Art-o-mat can currently be found at Caruso Home Accents, 3026 W. 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-691-1978. Gallagher offers a weekly prize to anyone who can explain the bullet hole.

Steven Darson is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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