Why Artists Can’t Quit Cigarettes

This past spring, Andrew Gori, 40, and Ambre Kelly, 44, the founders of the Spring/Break Art Show — a fair for emerging and midcareer artists — decided to pull together a last-minute, salon-style pop-up in New York’s NoLIta based on what their “alums had available in their studios right at that moment,” Gori says. As the submissions rolled in, one trend stood out: “There were so many cigarettes!” So many, in fact, that when their “Secret Show” opened in May, one room was dedicated entirely to cigarette-inspired art: There were nearly three-foot-high versions that resembled shaggy plush toys, made by Thomas Martinez-Pilnik, 29. There were sculptures in a variety of stubbed-out shapes constructed from steel by Mary Gagler, and clay by Emily Marchand. And on a 4-by-5-foot square of AstroTurf, 17 true-to-scale ceramic butts by Taylor Lee Nicholson, 32, were scattered like the contents of an overturned ashtray. “For these artists, cigarettes seem to represent childhood memories of their parents or grandparents smoking, but also a lost human connection,” Gori says. “I think there’s a yearning to return to an analog socialness and a time that cigarettes represent.”

Whether it’s nostalgia, a backlash to wellness culture or a manifestation of existential anxiety, the cigarette is suddenly a pervasive presence in art, design and even food. The collector and curator Beth Rudin DeWoody, 71, says that young artists “are returning to old images of cigarettes in ads and films from the ’60s and ’70s that are so glamorous and striking — if you took away the actual poison of the cigarette.” In December, she curated a cigarette-themed show at her private art space, the Bunker, in West Palm Beach, Fla., including pieces from contemporary artists such as the painters Ana Benaroya and Danielle McKinney, as well as seminal works like Claes Oldenburg’s drawing “Design for a Bowling Alley in the Form of Cigarette and Smoke” (1968).

Cambron’s cigarette-themed cookies.Credit…Photograph by Sharon Radisch. Set design by Yolande Gagnier

“The cigarette has become a visual object more than anything else,” says Todd Heim, known on Instagram as his drag alter ego, Steak Diane. “It’s the party prop du jour.” For Christmas, his friend Lydia Cambron, the 40-year-old senior store designer for the furniture company MillerKnoll in New York, made cookies that resembled ashtrays filled with cigarettes. Her photos of the treats — constructed from gingerbread, pretzel sticks dipped in white chocolate and ash gray sanding sugar — went viral, inspiring many imitators, including Heim, who recreated the cookies for another party. “We put them next to a bowl of real cigarettes,” says the 34-year-old, whose recently launched tabletop line, Chez Diane, includes coasters embroidered with cigarettes that were inspired by his childhood in Iowa, where his parents and grandparents smoked at the dinner table. “Yes, they’re bad for your health, but I think we’ve all realized vaping is probably worse for you than the real thing,” he says. “And we’re living through a moment when there are a lot of bad things for our health that are beyond our control.”

That’s an attitude that Daniel E. Soares, 29, the owner of the New York catering company Alimentari Flaneur, is also embracing with the grazing tables he creates for clients like Goop. Alongside cheese and charcuterie, he almost always includes a platter of figs interspersed with dozens of loose Marlboro Golds. “Most of the time, people laugh and eat around them,” he says. “But cigarettes don’t have to be smoked to send a message that it’s OK to indulge.” The British ceramic artist Alma Berrow, 31, who makes renderings of overflowing ashtrays, as well as sticks of butter with butts stubbed out in them, is drawn to the subversive quality of cigarettes. “Stuck in the middle of food, they can have a tinge of anarchy,” she says. “But I make my cigarettes really glossy with a bit of gold trim, so they also look like candy — and have none of that real-life stink.”

Nicholson, whose ceramic butts were also sold at the “Secret Show” for $35 each, is less interested in celebrating the aesthetic appeal of cigarettes than in exploring the evils of the industry behind them. The Charlotte, N.C.-based artist grew up among the tobacco farms of Williamston, where their grandmother worked in the fields. “As she got older, her skin became littered with cancer because of all those years out in the sun,” Nicholson says. “Seeing my grandmother die and not being compensated in any way showed me how disposable people are to Big Tobacco. And since the cigarette is also a disposable item, I thought it would be interesting to discard my art, too.” So this past spring, they took a road trip along Route 66, pulling over at gas stations and truck stops to leave ceramic cigarettes on toilet seats, sinks and stacks of newspapers. “I think my generation can relate more to addiction to the phone than addiction to tobacco,” they say. “But this idea of disposability is still around. To me, cigarettes represent how we treat both things and people now.”

Set design by Yolande Gagnier. Photo assistant: Christopher T. Linn. Set designer’s assistant: Brendan Galvin

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