Ever since Caitlin Warner was old enough to imagine a career for herself, she wanted to be an artist. However, the 24-year-old isn’t as enthusiastic about the gallery circuit or peddling her work at art festivals.

Warner wanted to find a more underground venue for her art, maybe even something slightly “punk-esque,” as she put it.

Back in 2012, around the time she graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she got the idea for a project that she calls “Unvending,” which offers her original works for up to $1 apiece from vending machines. The venture is purely artistic — she’s not turning a profit from her work, selling them at those rates — but it’s about making art accessible to people in a unique way. Plus, “I liked the idea of selling things inexpensively and not having to be present to do it,” she said.

It seems that she was onto something. Warner, who works by day as a tax preparer at Liberty Tax Service in northeast Minneapolis, landed a nine-month artist residency at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, which she completed last spring. That gave her a good start on her project. And, earlier this year, she received a $10,000 grant from the state arts board to flesh out the project more fully, she said.

Already, several of her stylized vending machines have been featured in a handful of local galleries. One of her machines is currently on view as part of the “Fluxjob” art show at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis.

Soon, Warner hopes to install some of her Unvending machines in places where people might not expect to encounter art, like maybe a neighborhood auto repair shop.

It’s a way to “make the art and the experience approachable for those looking at the art,” she said.

So much work in galleries is “so utterly conceptual, it’s not fun or interesting. It doesn’t appeal to the senses,” and it’s expensive, Warner said.

It may sound simple-minded, but, she added, “There’s such a thrill to the whole process of feeding in the coins, turning the crank, and finding out what you’ve just bought.”

‘Precious little objects’

A printmaker, Warner creates “tactile, quiet, precious little objects,” which dovetail nicely with the vending machine concept, she said.

Her vended items are mostly hand-bound books that involve the printmaking art form. “I like to make books because of the intimate, hands-on way a viewer experiences them,” she said.

Also, she’s interested in finding unique “ways to construct narratives out of everyday stuff.” For example, receipts can be used to tell a fictional love story, she said.

Warner is an avid comic book reader, something that comes through in the clever messages she spells out in her “mass-produced” pieces.

One of her most popular items, a screen-printed book titled “A Modest Manual for Living,” instructs readers to “inhale” and “exhale.”

Warner likes to take discarded items and give them a new life, often in playful ways. As one example, she cut up the pages of a shorthand primer, using the enigmatic symbols for lapel buttons. To take it a step further, the buttons resemble candy packets that might come out of a “real” vending machine, she said.

Warner has raided her closet, looking for items that have some potential for her work, and she’s even fished things out of the snow. Barbie doll shoes, soccer medals and meat grinding gears have wound up in certain pieces, she said.

A new life for old machines

Warner’s south Minneapolis studio is filled with the tiny in-progress artworks along with nine vending machines that are in various states of disrepair.

All but one of the machines function without electricity, she said.

She has a laundry soap-dispensing machine — a Craigslist acquisition “from a guy who was liquidating a laundromat” — and a number of others that once proffered medicine and personal care products, she said.

She’s had to replace parts, take them apart, repaint them, “and repair all the little quirks and bumps and damages,” that happen over the years, Warner said.

Often, she likes to work with the existing graphics. For example, on a laundry soap machine, Warner kept intact a bubble design that wraps around the word “sudz.” “I like how charming and retro it is,” she said.

Warner also has drawn inspiration from the national Art-o-mat project by Winston-Salem, N.C., artist Clark Whittington. He salvages retired cigarette vending machines, which also peddle art, according to the project website.

Sourcing the machines has been an adventure in and of itself. “I’ve gotten pretty good at prowling Craigslist ads,” she said. Toni Warner, who lives in New Hope, has enjoyed seeing her daughter’s project come together. Warner, who also studied printmaking in college, has helped haul some of the vending machines around in her dragon-themed art car.

“I like what she’s doing,” Toni Warner said, adding, the project shows that art “doesn’t have to be huge and flashy and grand to be valuable.”

Attention to detail

Josh Bindewald, who leads Highpoint’s Jerome Emerging Artists residency program that Warner participated in last year, said he especially likes the bright-orange snack machine. “Her craftsmanship was remarkable, her attention to detail in getting these things back to good condition,” said Bindewald, the exhibitions and artists cooperative manager at Highpoint.

His personal favorite among the items in the machines is the “Modest Manual for Living.”

Several of the items were wrapped in brown craft paper and tied with string, so it was like getting a gift, he said.

Likewise, Warner’s studiomate, Andy Sturdevant, said her work jumped out to him right away. “I liked that it was so site-specific and could go anywhere, in any public space. I found that very appealing,” he said.

The machines “blend into a commercial background seamlessly. That’s what I love about it. It really rewards careful attention,” he said.

As for Warner herself, she is so “tidy and so meticulous. It’s amazing to watch her work,” he said. “It’s like watching the world’s tiniest one-person assembly line.”


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.