Money Talks

Money Talks

Lauren Vanessa Tickle, 2013 Piece

2013 piece made of old $10 bills, which have intricate green detailing that’s now available only on $1 bills. Photo: Lauren Tickle

Many women can rationalize spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes or a handbag. So why not simply wear their dollar bills for the whole world to see? That’s the inspiration for the work of Lauren Vanessa Tickle, who is making a name for herself by constructing art jewelry out of U.S. currency. 

Tickle, 29, completed her first piece, the $9.00 Currency Converted Brooch, in 2008, as an MFA student at Rhode Island School of Design. (She earned her degree the next year.) The piece involved fake dollar bills tumbling out of her lapel, but
on its first outing, people caught on that the money was photocopied, so the next day she replaced it with real currency. Similar “performances” also attracted attention, such as when she wore a brooch with dollar bills attached like perforated paper, which she tore off to pay a hot-dog vendor.

For the Brooklyn-based Tickle, those reactions – the conversations that flow from her artwork – are as important as the work itself. “How do you define luxury?” she wonders. “Are luxury goods a sign of true craftsmanship or just a way to flash your cash?” And though some people don’t think twice about spending several paychecks on accessories, it’s considered impolite to talk about money – a paradox that fascinates the artist.

Since her days at RISD, Tickle has developed a series of necklaces, brooches, and earrings, all made of money. She likes appropriating a commonplace object and transforming it to increase its value. And while she titles her works to reflect their monetary value – the $32.00 brooch employs 32 $1 bills, for example – in the art world, of course, you are never paying strictly for materials; as she puts it, “idea, concept, process, and labor create value.” Her collection, aptly, is called Increasing Value.

Tickle homes in on the leafy filigree surrounding the numerals on bills and cuts, sometimes trimming around as many as 1,200 leaves for a single necklace. Layering each bit of paper, she creates lace-like adornments, although she says that her more elaborate neckpieces, such as the $178.00 US Dollars, Currency Converted Necklace, remind her of art deco baubles because of their geometric forms.

You might ask: Is this legal? Not really. Title 18, Section 333, of the United States Code forbids defacing currency, because it takes it out of circulation. But Tickle argues that she’s not taking money out of circulation; while her work may not be used to pay for groceries, she sees it continuing to change hands – from gallery owner to consumer, that is. In fact, she is more concerned about finding cash she can cut up than she is about landing in jail. Favoring older, more ornate bills, she has sent her parents into pawnshops to exchange new money for old, and made friends with a bank teller who saves old bills for her. Tickle is inspired to use old money for reasons beyond aesthetics: “I like the idea that it’s a time capsule; the [currency] won’t be made for forever, and whoever buys my pieces will have a part of the history of the dollar bill.”

Tickle’s recent success has spawned a legion of admirers; a fan even brought her flowers while she was exhibiting this past winter at the Fiber Art Fair in Seoul, South Korea. She is the recipient of the Inhorgenta Munich special award for contemporary jewelry for 2014, as well as the award for jewelry at Talente, and she participated in the Italian jewelry competition Preziosa Young 2013. Her value as an artist, it seems clear, is on the rise, too.

Bella Neyman is a design historian based in Brooklyn. She blogs at Objects Not Paintings.