A TECHNIQUE DRIVEN Blog dedicated to mastery of surface design techniques. First we dye, overdye, paint, stitch, resist, tie, fold, silk screen, stamp, thermofax, batik, bejewel, stretch, shrink, sprinkle, Smooch, fuse, slice, dice, AND then we set it on fire using a variety of heat tools.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Smokin' Art!

From Cris Winters
This article was written by my friend Matt Burnett, an artist colleague of mine in Saranac Lake, NY. He describes his interest in, purchase of, and activation of an old cigarette vending machine in 2010. He and another artist Todd Smith transformed it into an art vending machine and soon after, with the overwhelming majority of votes from the artists involved, named it the "Smokin" Art Machine." Matt wrote this up at my request after I posted this blog - Cris on Fabric Collage - about making my small fabric collages to include in the art machine last summer. There was such an enthusiastic response about the machine that I thought you might like this story from the "horse's mouth" (sorry, Matt :-).

How do I describe the phenomenon of Smokin’ Art?   Adventure.   Mystery.  History. Wonder. Curiosity may be the best word, because it was curiosity that drew me to this strange machine in the first place.

I first laid eyes on it in a antique store (a front for something less reputable, my wife Amy suspected) in downtown Plattsburgh, NY.  After giving up on the meager vinyl selections (Perry Como, etc.) I saw this machine right by the door.

I recalled a link shared by a colleague, the idea of transforming this machine into dispensing tiny art.   The Art-O-Matic concept has already been well developed, with machines in major cities all over the United States. (http://laughingsquid.com/art-o-mat-retired-cigarette-vending-machines-converted-to-sell-art/)

With the encouragement of my colleague, Todd Smith, then the proprietor of the Saranac Lake Gallery 7444 , I eventually returned to purchase this relic from an era where a pack of Marlboros sold for a dollar. 
Matt and Todd with their purchase
The vending machine is the special powder metallic yellow-gold color one only sees now in defunct amusement park rides.   The peeling labels above each knob were solved with colored paint squares courtesy of a local hardware store.   And the machine’s incredible weight made it just barely manageable for two people to wrestle into a vehicle.  Forget lifting it; being completely mechanical, this machine is wall-to-wall gears and steel.

We were amazed to find that the thing still worked, albeit fussily.  In the coming weeks, we would discover that the levelness of the machine, the weight of the dispensed art, and a thousand other factors all contributed to a “good pull”.

About the art

Once we got the machine working, the next part was filling it.  This is where it pays to be part of an awesome arts community like we have here in Saranac Lake.    In 7444’s “stuffing party”,  local artists were given a deadline to come up with a body of tiny works (at least a set of 12)    Todd Smith arranged with a manufacturer to make boxes similar in size to a pack of cigarettes. The boxes arrived flat, like pizza boxes, so not only did art need to be made, boxes needed to be folded together (like origami) and art inserted, then loaded into the vendor. The whole thing worked like a finely oiled machine, or at least more smoothly then the cigarette machine itself.

With the capacity for over 200 boxes, we didn’t fill the machine that first time but we came up with one of the most unique bodies of work that the Saranac Lake Community had ever seen.  I was pleased and surprised by the ingenuity of artists that I had been working with for many years, this format seemed to encourage alternate approaches to one’s artmaking.

The Artwalk
The crowd waiting patiently to buy some Smokin' Art for 4 quarters.
The “Smokin’ Art Machine’s” debut came with the June 2010 Art Walk.   We placed the machine right outside of the China Jade restaurant and proudly stood waiting for the crowd.   Our very first customer was Tim Fortune (also an artist contributor) who strolled up, quarters in hand.   Plink, Plink, Plink, Plink---Pull----NOTHING! The machine immediately jammed.

We tried again, but to no avail.  The mechanism was designed such that any box trapped in the dispenser would prevent any other knobs from being pulled…necessitating the front coming off and a sometimes surgical extraction. As I sheepishly handed Tim his newly acquired mangled art, I thought to myself, how often will THIS happen?

Approximately %15 of the time, was the answer.  Not bad one at a time, but what I was not prepared for was the line that developed in front of this machine.  People loved this thing!   The line of 4 to 14 people did not dwindle until well after the end of the two hour gallery walk.

Oh, the pressure of fixing the jams with that many people in front of you waiving quarters!   We artists labor for attention, clamor for it; when you find it thrown at you, nothing must get in the way!  Thankfully another artist, Larry Poole, came to my assistance and stayed for the duration.  Though I didn’t know him well then, by the end of that evening I felt the kind of kinship that I expect fellow soldiers must feel in the trenches together.  Together we managed to fix the myriad of jams and other technical problems, while keeping the masses pacified, the quarters coming in, and the art going out.  
Which knob to pull?????

A happy art patron

"How many quarters does my dad have on him......?"

The “Smokin’ Art” machine was restocked and brought out several more times that summer in Saranac Lake, Blue Mt, and a few other places.   Each time, the same mania seemed to result; curiosity ruled.   Not so much for the almost free art (imagine getting an original Tim Fortune or a Mark Kurtz for a $1) but I think even more for the novelty of “What will I get?” and the novelty of the strange machine with the inviting handles.

We had accidently struck on something that in my mind often seems absent or squashed in the traditional art gallery setting.   Kids and young people too young to remember these machines, (which have been out of play since the 90s) got in line again and again to insert a dollar and see what they got.   The fun, the surprise, the accessibility---all good ingredients between artist and community.

I sure hope some people have kept some of the amazing pieces that this machine dispensed.  But one is in many ways reminded of the postmodern approach to art: art being more of a transaction, a cooperation between the object of art, the experience of art, and the strategic deployment of art.   As a protagonist in this adventure, I have had so many adventures with the people that I met in front of the machine, the artists that I have cooperated with on the machine, and many other interactions which have unfolded in the name of Smokin’ Art.   Perhaps it is okay that the artwork itself in this case has become relegated to a crackerjack prize; perhaps the art is somewhere else, in the orbit of this machine, and all that it enables.

Smokin’ Art currently is on loan to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, NY.  For more info about the machine, please email Matt Burnett @ burnettm@canton.edu


  1. Really fine and fun post. Thanks for inviting Matt to fill in the blanks about the art vending machine. A lot of work for not much return - hmmm, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

  2. That is so cool! Bet there is someone there who loves to tinker with old machinery that could tweak it so that it works even better. Great idea, and obviously a hit with the art lovers!

  3. It is really neat to read this post in Matt's words. Just think about what four quarters buys these days... wouldn't usually think of art. Thank you!

  4. I don't know if it is part of the "Smokin' Art" project, but there used to be (and probably still is) an "art" machine at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. I never went to the museum without making a small art purchase. They are on display in my studio. What a wonderful idea.

  5. This is a wonderful idea and a great way to give people access to art, especially the younger ones.

  6. Very cool Cris!!! Hi from Queensbury!!!!

  7. Yep. We need to perpetuate this trend! Sooo cool! And, hello...how perfect to replacing the smoking habit with art appreciation and buying! Imagine the amazing artwork one could purchase with the dollars frittered away on cigarettes...

  8. Love the idea and the post!

  9. I so looked forward to reading this post. Just wonderful.

  10. I would definitely wait in line for a piece of art that costs $1.00. I purchased two pieces in an art-o-rama machine in Las Vegas for $5.00 each. It doesn't seem like you could make much of a profit doing this but it is a great idea. If I remember correctly, they have these machines in many major cities.


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