Sorted Pennies

2011 (ongoing), pre-Reagan and post-Regan pennies sorted by metal composition, custom collection jars, 3.5" x 3.5" x 4.5"

Feature in Coin World magazine

As the smallest unit of our currency, the penny is often seen as worthless. People often forget that they are legal tender, sweep them out of dusty corners and either throw them away with the trash or gather them in jars to cash in for higher units of currency.

I had personal relationship with the penny from a young age. As a child that grew up poor in the 1980’s, I have crisp memories of lugging full pockets of pennies to the corner store to buy candy. My mom and I would walk every morning around the parking lots of our massive apartment complex on the way to the bus stop, picking up pennies that people had dropped as they got out of their cars. It was a fun game for a kid.

Now I am an avid coin collector, in fact, exclusively a penny collector. I have been working to add value to them by finding alternative uses. I see the penny is a plentiful raw material that, with minimal labor, can be granted utility in many ways: as a mounting bracket for flags, a rear-view bike mirror, as washers and shims, and more. There are plenty of actual penny hoarders out there, collecting them to melt them down for the copper and double their value. Rather, my interest in the penny lies more in the realm of conceptual art.

The Lincoln Memorial Cents bear a portrait on the obverse side. I like to imagine the penny as representing one person, "an individual," with inherent worth, but often unvalued singularly. However, the multitude commands more attention. En masse, their value has more of a visible presence.

As the price of copper rose during the early years of the Reagan presidency, the penny’s composition was changed from 95% copper to 97.5% zinc with just copper plating. These pennies may have the same outward appearance, but as an artist interested in using material as metaphor, I see this move in odd synchronicity to Reagan’s spending cuts to social programs and incentives for big business. The idea of the penny remained in tact, as did the promise of the American Dream, and the Reagan era of conservative social and economic change left the poor with a great deal of patriotism, but not much substance in their pockets.

My rethinking of the penny stems from an interest in revaluing the American people. My design replaces the profile of Lincoln with the profile of Reagan, symbolizing the shifts in economic and social values in our country during his presidency. This summer, as an Art of Engraving scholarship recipient at the American Numismatic Association’s Summer Seminar, I began engraving this die for the obverse side of the coin. On the reverse, there will be an image of a sunrise with radiant beams of light and the text Morning in America, a hopeful slogan from Reagan’s 1984 Presidential campaign.

The penny is already controversial, it costs about twice its face value to produce, the general public considers them without worth, it isn’t accepted in vending machines, and there has even been talk of its discontinuation. With my Reagan Penny, I hope to stir up partisan positions on the value of an individual, the class issues surrounding Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the penny itself.