Sometime last year I had a day off in the middle of the week. My wife was at her job and I was on my own at The Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Turning a corner near the coat-check, next to the ATM, my eyes fell on what appeared to be a cigarette machine. This really caught my attention as I hadn't seen a cigarette machine in decades and I'm not sure I'd ever seen one in an art museum. On second glance I saw that emblazoned on the front was the word "Art-o-mat"! It was a cigarette machine indeed, but it had been re-purposed to vend some kind of art!

My Art-o-mat prototype

My Art-o-mat prototype

I peeked into the slots that used to reveal packs of Winstons, Camels, Marlboros and Cools and saw that each window housed a stack of work from a different artist.

For a small fee (cheaper than a pack of cigarettes these days) you could actually buy a tiny piece of original art — at an art museum no less! This I had to try!

I searched through and found what I might like, a present for my wife who couldn't take the day off to go to the museum with me. I put my money in the slot and pulled the knob. The longer-than-expected throw of the handle was a very nostalgic experience, even though I'd probably only ever bought cigarettes out of a machine on a dare. Out "ker-plunked" a small white box with a picture of an Easter Island style Tiki head on the label.

I took it home and gave it to my wife. Upon removing the cellophane band and opening the box she found, wrapped in magenta tissue, a raku Tiki head pendant necklace.

This was... well, cool! It was like one of those stories where the protagonist acquires something in an offbeat way that sets them upon a magical journey, like Jumanji or The Neverending Story. The whole thing was a fun, interactive, nostalgic, modern art experience! It was an artisanal Cracker Jack box prize! Be an art collector for fun and profit! But seriously, my wife still wears the necklace quite frequently, and I found out later that this is a nation-wide project and people do indeed collect and trade these things. We've even bought some more since.

A plaque on the machine said I could go to the Art-o-mat website to find guidelines for submitting ideas for my own art. Growing up on Whacky Packages and having created many of my own packages (and lampoons thereof), this was right up my street!

After weeks of careful consideration and meditation, I decided that landscapes would be pretty easy to produce in quantity and that probably very few artists would go to the trouble of creating oil paintings for this kind of thing.

To me, an oil painting is quintessentially what people think of when they hear the words "fine art" so I ordered a prototype kit, started a label design, and produced the prototype shown at the top of this post.


I cut and sanded a chunk of poplar to the right specifications and painted the small landscape, then wrapped it in glassine as shown in this example.


I sealed it with a tiny vellum stamp with my logo on it.


I produced a small certificate of authenticity with a brief history of oil painting, a mini bio, and a few words about buying and caring for an oil painting. The extra paper had the added benefit of cushioning the piece within a cardboard box provided in the prototype kit.


I stuck my label on, wrapped the cellophane band around it and submitted it for approval.

A few days later I received a very complimentary email with details on how to submit 50 pieces for vending.


I cut, sanded, and primed 50 more slices of poplar.


I painted in a background of sky and water adding the puffy clouds.


Once all that dried, I added hills in the distance and a bit of grass in the foreground.


A bit of foliage was added in two more sessions to complete the scene.


When the picture dried I painted all the backs black.


Each piece was signed, dated, and given a number in the series.


Just signing the accompanying certificates and packaging the pieces took the better part of an afternoon.


Once packaged, I sent the first batch off to be vended.

If you're an artist looking for a fun way to just plain share your work, seriously consider this project.

You can't make a business out of it, but they do pay you a modest fee for each piece. You can certainly make them simpler. I probably spent way too much time on them, but it was terrific fun and I wish I were a fly on the wall to see each person purchase and open their own tiny piece of art.

I'll be doing seascapes next!