Interview with Catherine Heard, Creator of Magic Gumball Machine of Fate, by Mirae Lee

Anyone who has ever come by our space would probably have paused mid-walk in front of the gumball machine standing beside our door. Sparking a nostalgia of childhood enjoyment, or a collectible’s desire, the red gumball machine is inevitably a curiosity-inducing creature. But unlike the typical sweet tooth’s favourites or mini figurines and toys, the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate is filled with plastic balls of $2 surprises, including pieces of the Berlin Wall and cereal box butterflies.

Following Artscape Youngplace’s first Magic Gumball Machine across from the Koffler Centre on the first floor, the second Machine was installed in front of Critical Distance on the third floor in early 2016. Many local artists have since enticed our visitors with unique multiples, and recently past exhibiting artists have taken over the machine, such as Gabriel Lalonde from The Amoebic Workshop: A Submerged Exhibition and his “Watchers” Handmade Pins edition currently in stock.

But who is behind this project, and how did it all come about? Read CDCC gallery assistant Mirae Lee’s café conversation with Catherine Heard, the creator of the project, as she shares the trajectory of the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate, some of its most memorable editions, and how this project has become her alter ego.

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Mirae: Hi Catherine! To start off, where did the idea of the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate come from?

Catherine: The initial idea came maybe 5 or 10 years before the project came to life. I was travelling in the US and saw a cigarette machine which was repurposed to sell art. When I was hired to teach at Brock University around 2007, I was teaching an introductory course where we covered all sorts of media. One of the challenges with the course was that we had very little storage space, but I really wanted to do a sculpture project with the students. So that’s when the idea of artist multiples came about. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool, since we’re making something small anyway, to find a way to distribute the multiples and make them into more of a community arts project?

When I started doing research on the gumball machine, I discovered that the Northern Beaver machine is an Ontario company. The school supported me by purchasing two of the machines, which I later bought back from them when I left Brock. I did the project at Brock for three years.

M: Currently, is the project organized with OCADU, or is it just your own project?

C: It exists in two forms. One is as curatorial project that distributes works by professional artists, and the other is part of my teaching practice at OCADU, where I use the machines as a vector for distributing works by students in my Artists Multiples course. I also make the machines available for other students and instructors at the university. Recently it has been used by graduating students as part of their thesis projects and by student-organized collectives. For student groups, I loan the machines for free, provide the balls at cost, and act as an advisor if they need support during the project.

M: Is there a particular thematic aim for the kinds of artwork you want to showcase through the Gumball Machine?

C: It’s funny, I wouldn’t say there is a theme, except for the themes that are already embedded in the practices associated with multiples. Artist multiples have a tradition of being three dimensional and inexpensive, and I tend towards choosing projects which are sculptural. But this is definitely not the restriction, because we have done lots of projects that are don’t conform to these generalizations. For example, the current editions in the machines are Carlo Cesta’s machine-embroidered patch with text that reads “Don’t Be Jealous”, and Lisa Neighbour’s demolition derby refrigerator magnets, titled “Smithereens”. Each of her gum ball editions consists of two cars and an explosion.

 

The machine has also hosted many editions that are more traditionally sculptural. Penelope Stewart’s “Persistence of Polyhedrons” was a series of geometric shapes cast in beeswax. Vid Inglevics, who also has a studio at Artscape Youngplace, created an edition of “genuine” pieces of Berlin Wall—each was vended along with a numbered certificate. The edition commemorated the fall of the wall, and spoofed the sale of Berlin Wall fragments—most of which are fakes, of course! 

Amy Bowles’s “Many Moons” was an edition of ceramic multiples in multi-coloured glazes—some moons are smiling, others are sneering. Amy is currently exhibiting with Paul Petro gallery, which is right around the corner from Artscape Youngplace.

Another favourite of mine was Shannon Gerard’s edition, “Boob in a Ball”, consisting of hand-crocheted boobs. That was one of the most popular editions ever, and sold out within days!

 

M: I really love how unique and quirky every single one of the editions are.

C: Quirkiness is definitely part of the tradition of artist multiple! More than other art forms, I think, multiples engage the viewer through humour. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all multiples are humorous, but they can offer artists an opportunity to create something lighthearted or a little different from the work they create in their primary practices. On the other hand, some multiples have a political bent, like Vid’s edition, and others are very beautiful or emotive objects.

M: Could you tell me about any other memorable pieces, or ones you are very fond of?

C: It would be impossible for me to pick a favourite—the machine has hosted so many amazing editions!

That being said, Julie Voyce’s edition “Little Butterfly” was one of the earliest editions in the machines, and I look back on it with particular fondness.  Julie has been a member of the Toronto art scene since the 80s and, along with printmaking, artist multiples are central to her artistic practice. When I invited her to do an edition, Julie she said she wanted to make something that was low tech—a “Depression–era craft” made from materials in her kitchen.

She created a template for butterfly wings, cut them out of cereal boxes, then adorned them with circular gold stickers and pipe cleaner antennae. She tapped into the aesthetic of the hand-made and the quotidian by creating something that was accessible, playful and absolutely charming. The idea of accessibility is very much in the spirit of artist multiples. One of the original ideas underlying artist multiples when they emerged in the 1960s was that they would make art affordable so that anyone and everyone could have art in their home.

Thinking back to the 1960s, artists including Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol all made artist multiples. Today some of those multiples, like Warhol’s signed Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans and Oldenburg’s papier maché pieces from “The Store” are now worth a small fortune! That’s part of the allure of artist multiples as well—maybe you’ll get lucky and you’ll buy something that will someday be worth a million dollars! 

M: How do you reach out to the artists? How did you get in touch with some of these artists?

C: Exhibitions in the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate can come about in different ways. Often things happen informally, as I talk to artists whose works I find interesting. I’ve also had artists approach me with ideas, and am always open to receiving proposals via email.

M: Many of these artists appear to be in their mid-career—is that by coincidence?

C: You’re right! A lot of the artists are artists I invite to exhibit are mid-career, probably because I am mid-career, too, so they are my peers. However, I have also have shown younger artists, including Wenting Li, who is a former student of mine. She organized the Monsters exhibition with a group of her friends who were in the Illustration program at OCADU. She also did a solo project where she created a miniature zine of Wallace Steven’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” accompanied by an edition of buttons. I enjoy working with younger artists, and am always looking for new voices to feature in the gumball machine.

  

M: Do you have an artist, or even a particular medium you want to work with [for this project]?

C: I’m particularly interested in featuring sculptural works in any medium. In the past the machine has featured editions made from ceramics, plaster, beeswax, crocheted wool, and mixed media.

Some artists also have made editions using temporary tattoos, refrigerator magnets, embroidered badges, silkscreened patches… the possibilities are endless!

M: I’m just getting distracted right now from the graphics as you’re scrolling through the Facebook page—do you make all of these graphics?

C: Most of them. I always give artists the option of creating their own graphics, but often I usually the signage for the machine.

M: Is there a particular aesthetic you’re going for with the graphics?

C: “Gumball” aesthetic! The aesthetic I’m trying for is bright and bold, almost like a side-show advertisement. The font that I tend to use is called Hobo Standard—it’s playful–looking, and a little retro. But, that being said, every edition is different and, first and foremost, the packaging and signage has to reflect the aesthetic of the artist and the edition.

M: I love them. I love how eye-catching they are.

C: Thank you. It’s funny, it’s like my alter ego *laughs*. It’s completely different from what my own artwork looks like.

M: Are you also a practising artist?

C: Yes, I work with sculpture and mixed media. Much of my work deals with the human body as it is understood through the history of medicine and science. My most recent solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, “Imaging Phantoms”, was an installation of sculptures made with internal organs that were revealed using medical CT scanning technology. The scans of the sculptures were output using Osirix medical imaging software and After Effects, and became video projections that created the illusion of bodies that hovered between life and death. I’m currently continuing this body of work, as well as working on a longer term project, embroidering images from the war on terror, Abu Ghraib prison, and other war atrocities.

 

Catherine Heard, Phantom, 2016

M: Going back to your description about how artist multiples are supposed to be very affordable—I know all of the multiples sell for $2, but have there been any challenges in terms of negotiating prices with the artists?

C: Most artists are very good-hearted! One of the interesting thing about artist multiples is that they tap into a spirit of community generosity. They become a way for artists to feel like they’re giving a gift to someone. For some artists, depending on the materials they work with, the economics simply don’t work—it simply isn’t feasible to sell a work of art for less money than it takes to create it.

But I have to say, most artists I have invited to exhibit have said yes, and very enthusiastically.

I also subsidize the project by covering the cost of the balls which run about 45 cents each, currently. This allows me to give the full profit from each multiple—$2 per piece—to the artist.

M: How do you filter through proposals, or are there particular guidelines?

C: I don’t get all that many applications out of the blue so, at this stage, I don’t have any formal application procedures. I usually sit down with the artist over coffee and we talk about their idea. If I think their proposed project would be successful in the context of the gumball machine, I ask them to create a maquette, so I can get a sense of what the finished project would look like. Then we can move forward to discussing how to package the multiple, designing the signage, and producing the works.

M: How many machines are there around the city?

C: I own seven machines. Currently two are at OCADU, two are at Artscape Youngplace, and one at Open Studio Gallery at 401 Richmond Street West. Another is at an exhibition at the Aurora Cultural Centre until November 11th.  After that date, this one will come back and I’ll relocate it somewhere else.

M: Do the machines update every time they run out with a new artist call-out?

C: I always have editions ready, so that when a machine runs out, there is a new edition ready to go in.

Every year in April, I do an “April Fool’s Mix” where I put leftover gumballs that haven’t sold into the machines—there are always a few left over from every edition. This year at OCADU, for our incoming first-year students, I put one-penny vend on the machine and the students who were participating in the tour of the Learning Zone, where one of the machines is located, got a gumball for a penny.

I have to say, I’m just not making money off this! I’d never recommend this as a strategy to becoming rich *laughs*.

M: Well, I guess the whole purpose behind the project is not really about the money-making, but more about creating a community.

C: Definitely! It is a way of giving back to the community at large, and helping artists get their work out into the public. The gumball machines are a way for people to get a piece of art by artists who are well-known and are represented by galleries across Canada and who have shown internationally. It’s really special that people can get a piece of art by a well-known Canadian artist for just $2.

M: Looking at your vision when you started the project to now, how do they compare? What is the future you envision with the Gumball Machines?

C: When I originally started, I thought this was going to be a one-off project. I had a small multiple I wanted to create and I had the gumball machine, so I thought I’ll just do it… and then, it spiralled out of control when I did another edition… and then I started inviting other artists to create editions. Now it seems like it’s going to be an ongoing project for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t have an end date, so as long as I’m finding artists who want to exhibit and there is public interest in the work, The Magic Gumball Machine of Fate will continue to thrive.

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You can learn more about the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate and keep up-to-date on the latest artist editions (and where the Machines are travelling) on Facebook. The AGO library recently acquired the editions if you want to see some of the editions in-person, especially those that are sold out! For more information about Catherine Heard and her work, check her website at catherineheard.com.


Top image by Shani K Parsons, other images taken from Magic Gumball Machine of Fate Facebook

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