Vending Friend Request

Art lovers, meet your new best bud

Up in smoke: Brown and the refurbished cigarette dispenser. (Enrique Limn)

Leading the way to the living room of her Sunlit Hills home, Victoria Brown is positively giddy.

Papel picado and a collection of chairs hang from the ceiling, reflecting the former gallerist's eclectic taste.

"Here she is," she says, like a proud mom opening her brag book. "She" is a newly minted art dispenser made from a repurposed 1950s cigarette vending machine, which Brown had delivered just two days prior.

It all started in the late '90s, when Clark Whittington, a North Carolina-based artist, decided to outfit one such automaton with photographs during a solo exhibit. The crowd ate it up, and the Art-o-mat was born.

The café that hosted that show loved the concept so much that the machine became a permanent fixture, and a waiting list formed of artists eager to fill it with 2"-by-3" original works.

"The artists that create the work for the machines are called 'Artists in cellophane,' and Clark is their national bureau chief," Brown explains. "It's kind of ironic that it's Winston-Salem—you know, tobacco country—and that's where he's doing it."

The guidelines are simple, says Brown, who first got involved with the project when she and her mom leased one for their Tacoma, Wash. gallery: "Each piece has to be wrapped in cellophane in order to go through the workings of the machine—hence the name 'artists in cellophane'—or it can be something inside a box." Over the years, she's seen an impressive number of works, like 3-D animal paintings, and a series of life-size pewter Saltines and mini pretzels by Herbert Hoover.

Brown says there are currently 110 Art-o-mats across the US and beyond, and hopes are high for this one—New Mexico's first.

"It's not the kind of thing where I just want one in Santa Fe. I want them on every block," she says. "I want people to come and do an Art-o-mat tour of all the machines that are around."

In keeping with the New Mexico theme, "MAT-Hilda," as Brown baptized her, is painted turquoise blue with some sharp cream and gray pinstripe accents, and a mirror etched with a Zia symbol.

Set to make its splash on Saturday, Feb. 16, at El Centro De Santa Fe, Brown hopes locals will line up to empty Hilda's innards.

Artists interested in the program, Brown points out, can purchase a 50-woodblock starter kit directly from Whittington, or take a more DIY route.

"If you have a friend who smokes, you can collect all their cigarette boxes and you can spray-paint them or bedazzle them or something," she says.

The artists, she says, get $2.50 of the $5 asking price.

"It's not a money-making thing," she says, "but if you are a 'real artist,' you can put your website on there, you can put your email, you can say, 'You like this? Come look at my real stuff.'"

Pointing to her personal collection of dispensed artwork—41 pieces strong—hanging on her walls, Brown says the pieces are as habit-forming as their nicotine-laced predecessors.

"It's just as addictive, but way better for you," she jokes. She also says that, much like Pokémon, one simply must "have 'em all."

The refurbished art dispensers, Brown believes, are tailor-made for the City Different.  

"Santa Fe is so ready for this. There are die-hard fans in this town," she says.

"These things get followers; and fans and people that will visit Santa Fe maybe once a year, they'll come by the Art-o-mat and see what's new and take a piece home, because—you know—that's not hard to put in your luggage, a little pocket-sized piece of art."

Combining novelty with a contested space issue, Brown hopes more established operations take note of her Art-o-mat operation.

"You can go walk all day on Canyon Road and look at wonderful art and never be able to afford any of that," she muses. "But everybody's got five bucks to spend on artists who need the exposure."

Santa Fe Art-o-mat launch
1-5 pm Saturday, Feb. 16.
El Centro De Santa Fe 102 E Water St.,

Santa Fe Reporter

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