The people’s art
What can a quarter buy these days?
One-eleventh of a gallon of gas. Fifteen minutes on a parking meter. And, if you’re lucky, a few extra pickle slices on a hamburger.
Thanks to Matt LeClair, 25 cents — or 50 cents, in some cases — will also buy an original piece of art. But you won’t find the masterpieces hanging in a museum or perched on a pedestal at some hip, downtown gallery.
LeClair sells the works in gumball machines.
“I hate art galleries,” says LeClair, a University of Maine alumnus who teaches online UMaine courses in new media. “I love art, but going to a gallery is like eating bran. It’s good for you, and you think you’re supposed to enjoy it, but there’s a wall there. You’re not supposed to interact with it. I kind of wanted to break down that wall and create art people could put in their pocket and take home.”
So he decided to place art in plastic capsules, the kind you find in a toy vending machine at the entrance to a grocery store. It adds an element of surprise and anticipation, because you never know what you’re going to get.
“I love that,” says LeClair, who works as a tech artist for L.L. Bean. “I want artwork to be more fun, more social, a more direct experience.”
In many ways, LeClair echoes the sentiments of his forebears — avant-gardes who often “violently opposed” the linking of art and elitism. LeClair’s methods and message also reflect his graduate work with UMaine professor Owen Smith, an artist and Fluxus historian.
Of the many manifestations of Fluxus, a movement that champions democratization, simplicity and the idea of life as art, Fluxlist Box 1 most appealed to LeClair. For the 1999 project, 37 artists each contributed 37 objects that were then assembled in 37 plastic boxes. Each participant received a box, which one described as “a collage of art novelties.”
LeClair decided to riff on the concept by combining his love for alternative publishing formats with his populist attitude toward art. Several years ago, in one of Smith’s graduate-level art courses, Callithump! was born. LeClair calls it an “encapsulated magazine,” though it doesn’t look anything like Martha Stewart Living. Each “issue” features a piece of art or poetry small enough to fit in a vending-machine capsule.
“He’s very interested in the idea that creativity and innovation can happen anywhere and everywhere,” Smith says of LeClair. “He’s interested in saying, ‘I want to be involved in the process of creativity; I want to move out of the restrictive confines of traditional art and into the popular culture using something like a gumball machine.’”
These tiny treasures also underscore the importance of physical publishing in an increasingly Internet-driven world.
“A lot of people just say print publishing is dead, and for them, if it’s not on the Internet, it doesn’t exist,” LeClair says. “I disagree. Anything that can’t evolve is going to die out, but I think from here on is where physical publishing gets interesting.
“People are just going to have to ask: Why does this exist as an object? Do we gain anything by making this ‘real’ instead of electronic?”
The most recent edition of Callithump! is in a pinback button format, for which LeClair and his wife, Jessica, created 1,000 designs. Some are a nod to history, like the earliest buttons that featured stars of Edwardian theater and were collectibles in their day. Others focus on modern phrases and imagery, such as a cartoon rendering of Stephen King’s face.
In the spirit of FluxList Box 1, LeClair has recruited other visual artists to contribute to the magazine. And he hopes Callithump! — which gets its name from a boisterous parade that anyone can join —will inspire people to bring art into their lives in other ways.
“It’s a cheap way to buy art, but it’s also about making the leap into realizing that art is something worth spending money on,” LeClair says. “If you spend 25 or 50 cents on art when you have a little extra change and you enjoy the experience, maybe this will lead you to realize that you can enjoy buying art at a larger scale. If that can happen, maybe those art galleries aren’t so unapproachable after all.”
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Fall 2009
Image Description: Matt LeClair