A national artist is heading a project to legitimize counterfeit one hundred dollar bills made by schoolchildren. It’s an effort to get money to clean up lead-contaminated soil in New Orleans. This week, the artist was in Louisville to collect bills made by Kentucky students. This is a story from WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer.
“Please take your seats,” art teacher Kristine Larson tells one of her fifth grade classes.
Last August, she had all the fourth and fifth graders she teaches at Whitney Young Elementary School in Louisville’s West End make currency. Each decorated a template of a one hundred dollar bill, including Dakota Roberts.
“I got to show my artistic ability on a $100 bill,” he says. “And I tried to draw what a real $100 bill would look like. But I don’t really see $100 bills everyday, so I just tried my best.”
Dakota drew his self portrait and his dog for the Fundred Dollar Bill Project. It includes students nationwide who are making these fundreds for a $300 million exchange with Congress to fund a related-effort called Operation Paydirt. That’s the amount scientists say is needed to clean up vast amounts of lead-tainted soil in New Orleans. Larson reminds the students about the project.
“You remembered one of the problems — lead damage?” Larson asks them. “Not only is that bad for their soil to grow things, but remember it said that there were some behavior problems and then there could be birth defects.”
Studies find lead, when ingested by children, can cause serious physical and neurological damage, manifesting itself in learning disabilities and violent behavior. High levels are often found in cities where lead was in paint on older houses or leaded gas seeped into soil.
Larson learned of this project from a teachers’ magazine and found lesson plans online covering math, civics, geography and more. But she says the project offers a larger lesson.
“I think our kids really got the idea that this was something on their level that they could actually be a part of collectively across the whole country,” she says. “And I just applaud Mel Chin for this idea. It’s just absolutely ingenious.”
Mel Chin is the conceptual artist who dreamed up this way to help New Orleans after his visit there following Hurricane Katrina. He says New Orleans stunned him.
“As a creative, you come in and perhaps you think you can do something, and I pride myself in that,” he says. “But I felt the magnitude was so intense that something big had to happen.”
Then he thought about his talks with residents and scientists about lead contamination. The solution?
The project includes leading scientists. And besides calling upon his own creativity, it’s a new chapter in the field of conceptual art, which isn’t about creating objects but communicating ideas. Notable conceptual art has focused on money. Marcel Duchamp made fake checks and other financial documents, and Andy Warhol’s work featured bills and dollar signs. But University of Chicago economist David Galenson, who studies the nature of creativity, says Chin’s idea breaks new ground.
“The distinctive thing here is that Mel Chin is putting this to social uses,” he says, “rather than simply just trying to enhance his own reputation.”
Now, his main endeavor is collecting their fundreds. And that brings him to the 21C Museum Hotel where art teachers and students meet him and the project’s armored truck to hand over nearly 2,000 fundreds. Chin addresses the crowd.
“And we do not think it is audacious to believe that human expression is valuable,” he tells them. “We don’t think it’s extravagant that the creativity of others need to be protects and preserved.”
Chin says the project has about 10 percent of the 3 million fundreds needed, so, he’s working to reach more teachers to find more children to participate while trying convince members of Congress to support the project. From Louisville, the truck rolls on to Bowling Green, Nashville, Asheville and then Baltimore where Chin will speak at the National Art Educators Association’s national convention (pdf).