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From Big Tobacco to Tiny Treasures

El Segundo has secured its very own Art-o-Mat art vending machine made from a 20th-century relic.

By Maureen Kingsley

Visitors to El Segundo Public Library this summer will notice a sleek, shiny addition to the library’s airy, east-facing Reading Lounge: a gleaming, turquoise-painted Art-o-Mat. The one-of-a-kind art vending machine is North Carolina–based creator Clark Whittington’s upcycle of an old cigarette vending machine, the likes of which were stationed in grocery stores, bars, restaurants, and other businesses nationwide from the late 1920s up through the late 1990s and early aughts, when selling tobacco in this manner in public places became illegal. (Does anyone else of a certain age remember making a game of pulling at the machine’s knobs in the grocery store as a child? Just me?)

In its second life as the Los Angeles area’s only Art-o-Mat, the reimagined cigarette machine sits between two windows in the library’s Reading Lounge, attracting curious visitors with its 20th-century aesthetic and its unique, $5 art pieces. “The machine takes five-dollar bills and one-dollar bills,” says ESPL’s Senior Librarian, Cultural Development & Communications, Julie Todd. After sliding the cash into the feeder slot, customers can choose from one of 22 knobs to pull, each of which dispenses one small piece of original art similar in form and appearance to its display behind glass.

“The artists themselves are from all over,” Julie explains, “and the artworks are fully kid-friendly. They include paintings, pieces of jewelry, and miniature sculptures,” all sized to match the dimensions of a conventional cigarette pack. She says the library is considering eventually stocking the machine with art from local creators. For now, all of the art pieces in stock were chosen by Clark, the maker of the machine.

First Spotted in the Southeast

The College of Charleston, in South Carolina, was where El Segundo Community Services Director Melissa McCollum was first introduced to an Art-o-Mat by her sister in 2019. Melissa bought a little landscape painting from the machine (“I still have it on display,” she says, and it appears on the opposite page) and eventually got in touch with Clark Whittington to see about acquiring an Art-o-Mat for El Segundo. Once that initial contact with Clark was made, Melissa turned the effort over to Julie Todd, who continued to work with Clark and The Friends of the Library. “The Friends of the Library approved the purchase and agreed to sponsor it at the end of 2020,” Julie explains, “and I requested our Art-o-Mat get a vintage-turquoise finish.” Clark was able to honor that request, and the finished Art-o-Mat arrived in El Segundo this spring.

History + Culture Made Fun

Like most older machines, “Our Art-o-Mat is big and heavy,” Julie laughs, noting that, for this reason, its location between the Reading Lounge windows is likely permanent. After a few initial challenges getting it positioned and ready to vend, the Art-o-Mat was ready for customers and sold 18 artworks in its first week. “What’s especially fun about the machine,” Julie says, “is that while customers can see each artist’s name and a sample of their work, the actual vended item is a surprise every time.”

Visit the El Segundo Art-o-Mat yourself to experience a little culture and delight with the pull of a knob. Upon entering El Segundo Public Library, head to the right, past the reference desk, to the bright and wide-open Reading Lounge. You’ll see the Art-o-Mat standing between the windows on the east-side wall.

Photos: Top, El Segundo Public Library's Art-o-Mat shot by Julie Todd; landscape painting shot by Melissa McCollum; Art-o-Mat art samples and change slot shot by Maureen Kingsley; vended hairpins shot by Maureen Kingsley.

This story appears in the July 2021 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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