With degrees from Vanderbilt University and Yale, you might expect Kim Willson to be wearing a business suit and pumps to work every day. But this Memphis wife and mom isn’t really a “pressed suit” kind of gal, although she does love a good bow blouse on occasion. Kim uses her God-given creative genius and eye for pop-fashion to transform vintage cigarette and candy machines into tiny worlds of nostalgic delight.
But that’s not her only business. In addition, the Kentucky-born artist runs Badaboom Balloon, a life-of-the-party balloon sculpting business, and she created The Original TADDY SMACK, the ultimate pest-killing device. As our newest FACE of Memphis, Kim shares what inspires her — a person who is equal parts artist and entrepreneur — to move back and forth daily between her right and left brain with remarkable agility.
How long have you been an artist?
I’ve been an artist, in some form, my whole life. Graduate school for me was centered on studying art in religion, exploring how art was used to communicate the stories of the Bible. Specifically, we looked at Christian iconography and Latin American art. I never studied art beyond history, though.
You’ve started and are currently managing three thriving businesses. When was your start as an entrepreneur?
My first business, Passport Panties, was started with my twin sister, Mary Kay Bowden, and friend Morgan Hutchinson, founder of BURU, in 2005. When it comes to starting a business, you have an idea that pops into your mind, and as soon as you act on it, you become an entrepreneur. For me, I love brainstorming ideas, figuring out how things are made, and coming up with creative spins on problem-solving. For instance, The Original TADDY SMACK came out of a season where we had house flies, and I was using a silicone pot cover to swat flies. It worked like a charm, and I realized I just needed to put a handle on it to make it a more effective fly swatter than the average one on the market. Because of my experience with Passport Panties, I knew how to have prototypes made in Asia, and I knew the steps to take to start this new endeavor. I want to say, though, that I am dependent upon and thankful for the incredible creativity of other artists all around the world that contribute to the making of my products.
How would you describe your cigarette machine art?
Pop art. My machines are dioramas, created to evoke delight, memory, and pleasure. Years ago, people would approach a vending machine looking for relief in cigarettes or candy. The machines themselves are naturally beautiful, but to enjoy that beauty now, they must be gutted and refurbished. My goal is to create tiny worlds inside refurbished machines that are pleasurable and bring relief customized specifically for my clients.
How did you ever think of this idea? It’s extremely unique.
One of my clients came to me with just the face of a broken machine. He loved what I did with Passport Panties and my canvas paintings and was looking to turn the face of the machine into a piece of art. I came up with the idea of building a little world inside the machine as a diorama, as that stayed consistent with the original purpose of the machine: to provide relief from a sometimes harsh world. That led me down the path of creating more machines that intend to capture what sparks memories of delight for my clients.
Where do you get the machines and the figures to put inside them?
I hunt all over the U.S. So many have been destroyed, so it really feels like a treasure hunt as I am looking for them. They are always in horrible shape and require gutting and resurfacing. The little pieces that make up the tiny worlds inside come from found objects around my home and studio. It’s really a lot of fun, and usually, when I tell people where my art comes from, it makes them laugh. For instance, I’ve found that the inside of Scotch tape rolls become wonderful lampshades and prize containers out of gumball machines make the best chandeliers! I’m constantly looking for little things that can be repurposed to create these little worlds.
For many miniature artists, scale is very important, but for me, it’s more about impression — what stood out in a memory. Right now, I’m working on a machine that is inspired by Bloomingdale’s in New York. The shoes are not proportional to scale, but I’m not as focused on that as I am on memory and the feelings that the memory evokes.
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Where does your inspiration come from for a particular theme?
Some themes are based on a client’s request. One client owns a newspaper, so the cigarette machine has a mini-printing press and writer’s room. Typically, a client tells me their interests, and I create a vision, thinking about how to best present it within the confines of the machine. The Bloomingdale’s machine I mentioned earlier is inspired by my own time in New York. I loved the intersection of 59th and Lex because it represents the contrast of New York City so well. The glam of Bloomingdale’s is on the corner with the grit of the subway running underneath. Another machine was done for a family who loves skiing, so the theme was après-ski. I definitely see a Memphis machine in my future because my family loves Memphis so dearly!
How long does it take to make one machine?
It takes eight months to a year to make one, based on the size.
Where do your machines most often find permanent homes?
About half of my machines have made their way into private collections in homes, and the other half can be seen in public spaces. Currently, you can see two of my pieces at The New Orleans Advocate lobby on St. Charles Avenue.
Are there other artists or art forms that inspire you?
Joni Eareckson Tada inspires me tremendously. Talk about an artist overcoming and on a mission! She’s the one! As far as art forms, you will see the themes of fashion as an art form in my machines for sure.
What is the best advice you have to give?
As it pertains to work, always have a grateful heart. I am most creative when I have a headspace and heart space full of gratitude. It is a luxury that I get to do this. I have friends who are more creative than I am, and life hasn’t allowed them the flexibility to do what I do. In addition to that, I would say hammer it! Get up at 4 a.m. to get the work done if that’s what it takes. Basically, work hard with gratitude, but keep a loose grip on what you do. COVID has taught me that.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Diet Coke, Dolly Parton music, and color!
All photography provided unless otherwise noted.