WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- As cigarette vending machines teeter toward extinction, a young artist in this old tobacco town believes he has found a new niche for a few of the survivors.
In what he calls a cosmic fluke, Clark Whittington came up with the idea of incorporating a 1950s vintage cigarette machine for a work of conceptual art he called Art-o-Mat.
Instead of selling packs of Camel or Winston cigarettes, Art-o-Mat dispenses similar-sized art works, ranging from "Dog Chewed Matter" (with the aid of Whittington's mixed-breed puppy, Maggie), to ones with intriguing titles like "Chunks" and "Surf & Turf."
There's also a "Pack of Poems," which contains four tiny scrolls featuring original poetry.
Whittington, 31, is hoping Art-o-Mat will hook people on art instead of nicotine. He's displaying original works from 40 artists from as close as Winston-Salem to as far away as Ohio.
Whittington became enchanted with old cigarette vending machines because of their "retro" look, not because he wanted to make a politically correct statement on the dangers of teen smoking.
"Living here in Winston-Salem, I've seen both phases of tobacco," he said. "I know a lot of people who have family who worked for years in tobacco plants. And the tobacco industry always has been a strong supporter of the arts."
Art patrons need to ante up for their new treasures by diligently inserting eight quarters into the slot, as many of them once did for a pack of butts.
At first glance, the machines appear to be the real deal. But Whittington subtly changed a few things while keeping their old charm. For example, under the coin slot is a sticker with a telling message: "Sales of Art to Minors are not Forbidden by Law."
Whittington has been surprised by the popularity of the machines.
"Art has a stigma of being pretentious," he said. "I wanted to find a way to make it more accessible."
Collaborating with fellow artist George Doles, Whittington has set up a small collective called "Artists in Cellophane" to keep the machines filled with artistic treasures.
He hasn't had any trouble finding artists who want to have their works exhibited in Art-o-Mat. Most of the publicity has been through word of mouth, he said.
The $2 fee is used primarily to support the arts. The first $1.50 goes to the artist, a quarter goes to support the arts program at Jefferson David Diggs Elementary School in Winston-Salem, while the remaining 25 cents is used to maintain the machines.
There are four Art-o-Mats in Winston-Salem and another in Raleigh, with another scheduled to arrive at New York's Whitney Museum in April.
The original Art-o-Mat was featured by Whittington in a one-man show during the summer of 1997 at Penny Universitie, a popular coffee house just a few blocks from the old R.J Reynolds Tobacco Co. warehouses.
"I figured once the show was over, I'd bring it back home and put it in the basement," he said, "and that would be it."
But before he could do that, Whittington was approached by the coffee house's owner, Cynthia Giles. She begged him to leave the machine in her restaurant, where it became a popular attraction.
Soon, other restaurant and art gallery owners were asking Whittington if he could create an Art-o-Mat for them.
Once the word got out, people starting coming by to check out the latest creations in the Art-o-Mat.
Lynn Byrd is co-owner of The Bistro, a restaurant in Winston-Salem with an Art-o-Mat that sells about 80 miniature art works a month.
"Customers come in and they look over and see what they think is a cigarette machine with Camels and Salems," she said. "Then they look twice and I see them scrounging in their pockets for lint-free quarters."
Byrd, who once worked at RJR in sports marketing, is proud to call herself an Art-o-Mat addict.
"I use the same machine, the same quarters, and the same motion to buy a pack of poems instead of a pack of cigarettes," she said.