Saying that I stumbled into a homemade vending machine for art would be an understatement. I collided into it the same way I discover everything: knee first.
With the grace of a bow-legged giraffe I hiked back up and focused on my assailant: It appeared to be a gun vault from the future, but inside its plexiglass lid were dozens of wooden blocks, hugged into lines by metal coils. Each, it turns out, was decorated by The Bath House Bunch, an after-school program of child artists.
For one dollar I selected and purchased my prize: a block of wood painted like a cell phone. I'm fairly unlucky, so I wasn't shocked when the treat got lodged sideways. Jammed. Stuck like a bag of Funyuns when you TOTALLY WANT A BAG OF FUNYUNS.
"Can I Fonzi this?" I thought. "Is it ever okay to hit art? Especially child art? Is that like punching a child's dreams because I'm an impatient adult who doesn't know how to behave in public?" Admittedly, I was there a while. Debating. An attendant saw me an long-sighed, walked over and lifted the lid as easily as opening up a turntable. It wasn't even locked. I, again, was an asshole.
This particular device was done as a gift by Caleb Massey, local artist and brother of Kineta Massey, the art educator for The Bath House Bunch. All of the money brought in goes back into the after-school program. Buy kid art, support kid art.
It was Marty Van Kleeck, manager of the lakeside culture venue, who originally had the idea. She found the discarded contraption in a closet on-site and thought, "we could put art in that!" So, she posed a proper challenge: she left the unloved vending machine on a podium and walked away.
She didn't have to wait long before Caleb Massey snatched it up.
This wasn't Massey's first venture in exhuming discarded appliances. In fact, that's sort of his jam. He's known around town for his steampunk and atomicpunk ray guys, which he makes out of all kinds of oddball things: blow dryers, old light bulbs, soldering irons -- you name it and he's probably resurrected it. For this project, he added fun metal details, like aluminum bars and industrial bolts as well as a set of intergalactic knobs to aid in doling out the gifts.
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Caleb didn't just art and run either. He went on to teach a kid's ray gun summer camp at the Bath House. In that magical, futuristic space, the weapons didn't have dangerous consequences, instead they had metamorphic reactions. "Some would turn whoever was hit into a sheep," said Van Kleeck, "but each had its own magical powers."
The idea for art vending machines has been around awhile, thanks to Art-O-Mat, a company formed by artist Clark Whittington back in '97. His coin-ops of choice are discarded cigarette machines, which he re-purposes, gussies up and fills with tiny pieces of pack-sized art, wrapped with a strip of cellophane. The work comes from artists all over the country who go by the group name Artists in Cellophane.
There isn't a ton of payoff for the labor. At a Whittington machine, each selection costs a little more than a pack of Pall Malls -- five bucks, to be exact. Of that loot, one dollar goes back to Art-O-Mat, a couple go to the piece's author and the rest goes to the "gallery space" that houses the machine. In Dallas, that gallery space is the Whole Foods at Park Lane. (Our particular coin-gobbling is pretty righteous, refinished so it resembles a rusted-out gas pump.)
Whether you plunk your money into Art-O-Mat or the Bath House's Vendart, you feel like you cheated a system. That you won something that you weren't expecting. These little artful gifts could be around any corner, so keep your eyes open and your pockets full of quarters.