Paper Money

Artist explores scenes of slavery on notes

A fascinating and artistic look at an aspect of paper money not often seen was the subject of an exhibit and lecture recently at Plattsburgh State University just across the lake from us here in Burlington, Vt. 

As told by the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, “The Color of Money” is the culmination of a years-long effort by South Carolina graphic artist John W. Jones. More than a decade ago, as part of his normal work, he one day had to enlarge a piece of obsolete paper currency for a client. Only upon doing so did he realize that he was working on an image of a slave picking cotton, and he was shocked that such a thing existed. 

His chance discovery set him off on a search for how many more such pieces he could find and he is now past 150. Making use of his artistic ability, Jones did more than find the notes. He took their engraved vignettes and transformed them into a series of acrylic on canvas full color paintings, by first precisely drawing each vignette on the canvas and next applying layers of color.

Connect with Coin World:  

He started simply enough by searching eBay, but as word of his work spread, Jones says, “People all over the country started sending notes that I didn’t have already. It’s still an ongoing thing. Being an artist, I can re-create these images in full color ... so people can see what I was seeing.” Amazing to him is that many of the notes are incongruously characterized by smiling workers and happy scenes.

He has thus far done over 123 paintings. They have appeared in more than 400 magazines and newspapers, and some are part of the traveling exhibition seen in Plattsburgh and in dozens of other places across the country.

Jones says: “My experience researching this project has shown me that the most beautiful American Dream experience is the history of African Americans from slavery to present day. Many African Americans are ashamed of our slavery history, and many whites feel guilty about American slave history. My hope is that the exhibition Confederate Currency: The Color of Money will inspire discussions on the legacy of slavery and somehow help to remove the shame African Americans feel and remove the guilt whites feel when slavery is discussed.”

The exhibition is online. A print exhibition catalog, Confederate Currency: The Color of Money Depictions of Slavery in Confederate and Southern States Currency, is also offered for $50. More information is also available here

Community Comments