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Vending machines stuck on local art

Inspired by two teenagers talking about sticker art on a road trip, ArtSticks is putting art out into the community through repurposed vending machines.

Inspired by two teenagers talking about sticker art on a road trip, ArtSticks is putting art out into the community through repurposed vending machines.

ArtSticks was founded by Cassie Clusman and James Clark in 2018, after Clark passed through Fargo, ND with his daughter and one of her friends. Clark’s daughter, Josie, wanted to visit a sticker dispenser in Fargo, part of the Albino Buffalo art project. When they found the sticker dispenser it was empty and Clark’s daughter and her friends were disappointed, but the idea stuck with him.

“That’s where the inkling of (ArtSticks) started,” Clark said. “So I started thinking it would be cool to introduce this sticker machine idea into Boulder.”

Clark listened to his teenage daughter and her friend having conversations about the art on stickers and the thought of encouraging more conversations about art held great appeal. Clark and Clusman reached out to the founder of Albino Buffalo, who helped them get started with their own iteration of the vending machine. 

ArtSticks launched the first series of stickers, highlighting local artists, on Valentine’s Day of 2018. The project — now on the seventh series —  focuses on the theme of Art as Resistance. The eighth series will launch in March, featuring artists around Boulder County.

The theme of “Art as Resistance” is broad, but ArtSticks likes to keep it open to interpretation, they said. The wide field can be social commentary, environmental, gender issues or anything else an artist feels passionate about, Clark said. The only hard restriction Clark puts on the artists is to keep the designs free of nudity, violence and explicit content, since the vending machines are kid-accessible.

The important thing, Clark said, is keeping the art out in the community to generate conversation. Most people don’t walk into art galleries, he explained, and if they do, they don’t often buy something. Putting high-quality art into stickers, along with the tactile feeling of putting money into a machine and getting something mysterious, is the big draw for Clark, he said.

Clark and Clusman admit to playing “secret shopper” around the vending machine in Trident Booksellers and Cafe on the west end of Pearl Street in Boulder, to listen in on people as they get stickers from the machine.

“It’s really amazing to see what happens and how people actually talk about art and engage with their friends about it,” Clark said.

During the beginning of the pandemic, ArtSticks had to remove one of their vending machines from Celestial Seasonings in Boulder when the lockdowns and restrictions on in-person gathering shut down tours at the tea facility. Wanting to keep access to the stickers open, Clusman and Clark developed a virtual machine that kept the same idea, and cost, with a broader reach.

“The fun part about the machine is that you put in four quarters and get a random sticker from the series, so we tried to bring that to the digital world,” Clusman said.

Clusman and Clark both live in Longmont now and are working to expand ArtSticks to more areas of the county and state. There are currently two machines on Pearl Street in Boulder — one at Illegal Pete’s and the other at Trident Bookstore — with a third moving into the Firehouse Art Center in the first quarter of 2022.

Adding a machine to the Firehouse Art Center has been in the works for a while now, according to Firehouse Art Center Executive Director Elaine Waterman. Waterman and Clusman met at a Longmont Chamber of Commerce event and hit it off, she said. 

Waterman was looking for more art and social activism opportunities and wanted to connect teens from the Firehouse’s Studio Intern Project with ArtSticks for more educational opportunities. Around the same time, Waterman said, she and her colleagues at the Firehouse had talked about installing a mystery art dispenser of their own.

Working with Clusman and ArtSticks was the perfect answer, Waterman said. Putting an ArtSticks vending machine in the Firehouse suits the mission of both organizations in creating more access to art, she explained.

“It’s such a great way to experience custom-made art at a really low price,” Waterman said.


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