The essence of money - Artist's currency shines a light on our belief systems

The Star-Ledger, February 11th, 2005

SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

1279 words

English (c) 2005 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

Whip out a $5 bill from your wallet - or a $10 or even a $100, if you've got one - and ponder its value for a moment.

What's it worth - really worth?

Up until 1973, the value of the U.S. dollar was backed by a real amount of silver or gold, or a combination of the two, locked up in a real vault somewhere. Today, the currency of most nations, including the greenback, is not backed by anything of material value.

Money only has value because people believe it does, according to Alec Thibodeau, a Rhode Island artist who designs his own currency. Indeed, Thibodeau's aim as an artist is to get people thinking about the larger questions surrounding the little pieces of currency that rule our lives.

Thibodeau, 32, draws and screen prints his money on durable paper, depicting regular Rhode Islanders posing with birds and vegetables. He then uses his notes to trade or barter for things of value, in lieu of real money.

Thibodeau calls his money "Noney" - as in none, nil, nothing - because each note has a denomination of zero.

For Thibodeau, Noney returns a standard to currency. But instead of gold or silver, Noney's standard is the aesthetic value of the art itself, he said.

"What we have today is fiat money, and there is nothing backing it, so it's literally, 'In God We Trust,'" he said. "With mine, I put it out there, and I'm not going to tell you what it is worth. It's art that I use to buy things with. If you think it has value, then great - take it from me, trade me something for it."

Based on the testimonials on his Web site ( www.noney.com ), many people have taken him up on his offer, some from as far away as Canada, Belgium, France, Mexico and Russia.

Sarah Riegelmann, a 47-year-old graphic designer and printer who lives in Maplewood, traded maple candy from Vermont and contemporary art posters for five Noney notes. Riegelmann, who is also a bee keeper, originally wanted to trade Thibodeau some honey for his Noney, but he wasn't interested. The notes Thibodeau eventually sent Riegelmann featured the portraits of five Rhode Islanders named Ursula, Stephan, Tucci, Frances and Bexca.

"They are so beautiful. I want them all now," Riegelmann said.

Noney notes feature 10 different portraits. Thibodeau selected the faces after sponsoring an "Are You The Face of Noney?" contest in 2003. It took him another full year to draw and silk-screen the faces. All told, he printed 10,000 notes - 1,000 of each face.

"The art is beautiful and he screen prints these things, which requires a lot of talent and skill," Riegelmann said. "Each one is a little work of art. I know any one of my family or friends would gladly barter for a Noney note. Everyone is eager to have one."

Riegelmann also gets a kick out of the way Thibodeau signs each note: "Tenderly, Obadiah Eelcut."

Thibodeau said he mixed up the letters of his real name and came up with the odd-sounding Obadiah Eelcut. "It's an anagram," he explained. Thibodeau said he likes "Obadiah" because it's an old New England name, as well as the name of a counterfeiter who once lived in Rhode Island.

Not that Thibodeau considers himself a counterfeiter. For that matter, neither does the Department of Treasury, which finds the whole thing a bit amusing.

"It's okay to do it as long as it doesn't have the words 'legal tender' on it," Claudia Dickens, a spokeswoman with the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said. "They use it in the same manner that, say, Disney uses Disney Dollars.

"If merchants or people in that area are willing to accept it, that's their business. That's something the federal government doesn't get involved in."

Thibodeau is not the first American to create his own currency. In fact, local currency, which was popular during the Great Depression when federal dollars were in short supply, is enjoying a bit of a revival, according to Susan Witt, executive director of the E.F. Schumacher Society, which tracks and studies local currencies.

Today, residents in more than 65 communities in the United States and Canada are printing their own currency and using it to pay for everything from groceries to haircuts to computer repairs.

Residents of Ithaca, N.Y., the home of Cornell University, have had their own paper money since 1991, and are often credited with starting the movement.

The money is denominated in "Ithaca Hours," with each Hour valued at the equivalent of $10, the area's average hourly wage, said Steve Burke, president of the board that administers Ithaca Hours. Anyone can participate. For $7.50, residents become members and receive a local directory that lists all other members, their phone numbers and the services or goods they are either offering or seeking in exchange for Hours.

For example, a carpenter may be willing to accept partial payment for his handiwork in Hours. He can then take the Hours he's earned and call someone else in the directory to purchase some other service using Hours.

Local currency advocates say such programs help build a sense of community that is absent when ordinary money changes hands.

"Money has become altogether abstracted from our daily experience," Witt said. "We talk of earning 6 percent interest, but have no picture of what our money is doing, whether it is working to build wheelbarrows in Brazil, grow corn on chemically fertilized land in Iowa or make shoes in a crowded factory in Thailand."

Burke said Ithaca Hours ensure local earnings keep circulating locally instead of being siphoned away by big corporations. He cites his own business, Small World Music, as an example.

He sells CDs. So does Barnes and Noble down the road.

"We sell them at about the same price," he said. "The advantage of coming here, however, is that I accept 50 percent of the payment in Ithaca Hours."

Such socioeconomic issues were not on Thibodeau's mind when he first embarked on his Noney project in 2003. The project started out as a form of artistic expression with a touch of satire, said Thibodeau, who grew up in Maine. "I thought currency would be a good way to take screen-printed pieces and have them exist in unusual places," he said. "I wanted to have art that was visual and could be touched and felt and have a texture."

Originally, Thibodeau distributed his Noney at local bookstores and coffee houses in Providence. Anyone who showed up was given a handful of Noney and told to go out and try to spend it.

Thibodeau also has encouraged people to share their adventure stories so he can keep track of the Noney trail. One guy in Albany, N.Y., told Thibodeau he traded a Noney bill for a beer. A person from Russia wrote in to say she paid for a concert ticket using Noney. Someone in California traded a Noney bill for a self-portrait.

"I wanted it to migrate and take on a life of its own," Thibodeau said. "And it has."

  1. Artist Alec Thibodeau, creator of Noney notes, trades his money for goods, and encourages others to do the same. 2. Above, the back of Noney notes. At far right, the front of Noney notes, which feature 10 different portraits of regular Rhode Islanders.

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