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Outsider Art in a Box

By Holland Gidney

Had you stumbled sleepily into the tiny gallery/closet half-hidden at the back of Vancouver’s Petri Dish (2406 Main St.) in August, you would have been shaken awake by the bright colours of seven elaborately decorated boxes hung on the walls. The creatively embellished boxes are part of Outsider Art in a Box, the clever concept of Rhonda Simmons, a Vancouver mixed-media artist, who has refashioned old sanitary napkin dispensers as artistic vending machines.

“Outsider Art in a Box is cheap, direct and accessible to the general public and provides a space for artists to distribute their work,” Simmons says, noting that it’s not a new idea but one inspired by other “art vendors,” including Louis Rastelli, the guy behind Montreal’s popular Distroboto machines. The main goal for Simmons’ particular project, the fourth in Canada by her calculations, has been to “make art accessible and affordable to all people.”

Affordable is the right adjective to use. For about the same price as one of those lattés with a foamy heart, you can buy a small piece of original artwork, dispensed at random. Each piece of art comes packaged in a little cardboard box, hence the project’s name.

“The name Outsider Art in a Box is my love of word play. As a society we are always prophesying get out of the box,” explains Simmons. “The creative challenge for the artists is creating quality small works of art.”

By mid-August, though, there were already 30 artists from different parts of B.C., Alberta and New Brunswick who had risen to the challenge of creating mini-masterpieces for sale. Of the $4 purchase price, $2 goes directly to the artist, $1 to the host venue and $1 to Simmons for machine upkeep and ongoing project expenses. This is no exclusive art project, though. The creator of Outsider Art in a Box is always on the lookout for new contributors. “If it can fit in a box then for goddess sakes BRING IT ON!!!!” Simmons writes on the project’s blog at

The seven vending machines on display at the Petri Dish were part of a month-long exhibit curated by Simmons, where she had a different artist decorate each one and then fill it with 25 miniature pieces of their work. (She even painted one herself, which was filled with the works of a queer artist from Eastern Canada.)

Hopefully by the time you read this, these particular self-serve art dispensers will have found more permanent homes in other venues, like the purple one Simmons herself decorated with an elephant that’s been accepting loonies and toonies at Ruby Dog’s Art House (4738 Main St.) since the end of May. In the meantime, three machines were displayed at the Vancouver Home & Interior Design Show earlier this month (October 12-15), and, if all goes well, there should be one installed by now in Fredericton.

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