Dollar Bill Art
Mark Wagner makes collage art out of sliced-up dollar bills, which in lesser hands might seem like a clichéd commentary on the commercialization and capitalization of art yada yada yada—but Mark avoids falling into that trap mainly because the images he assembles out of currency are so amazingly detailed the conceptual stuff doesn’t even matter. We stopped by his Brooklyn studio recently where he and his assistant were hard at work and talked to him about being a workaholic, growing up with 12 siblings, and his attraction to dollar bills.
I saw your giant Statue of Liberty creation. How long did it take you to make that 17-foot-tall collage of dollar bills?
Mark Wagner: It took me and Kat, my assistant, about nine months for just the collaging part and months before that preparing for it, and a couple months after that wrapping up all the extra.
Do you work on different projects or collages simultaneously?
We work on a lot of stuff at once, usually between half a dozen and a dozen pieces. Sometimes if a deadline’s coming up we’ll focus mainly on one big piece.
Is it just you and Kat making these, or do you get outside help?
Other people have joined us off and on, but it’s mostly just us working on the collage part. My girlfriend Amy is on the other side of this studio and she provides guidance but rarely touches the work. And occasionally we’ve had some other people come in to do the more menial tasks.
I saw on your bio on your website that you’re the youngest of 13 children. That’s a pretty big family.
I come from central Wisconsin, from a farming community, and that was kind of par for the course for the previous couple generations. So I think my family was like the tail end of that wave, where it was normal to have big farming families with lots of hands to help out on the farm.
Did you grow up on a farm?
We had a barn but we didn’t have any livestock. My dad was a mechanic. I got some stuff from my family. A lot of them have hand skills of some kind: I’ve got brothers who do woodworking, and so did my dad. A lot of my sisters do crafts and stuff, and my mom made a lot of our clothes when I was growing up, because that’s how you keep your kids dressed on a mechanic’s salary.
You’ve said in your artist’s statement that you are very focused on the craft side of your work. Does that preoccupation with technique come from your family?
Yeah, I think that helps. And the work ethic too, certainly. I mean, this is time-consuming stuff. Relaxing isn’t my family’s strong point, they’re all kind of workaholics.
You must spend a lot of time in the studio then.
Yeah, I probably spend six days a week in the studio. Amy makes me take one day off on the weekend. Sometimes two days off when we’re splurging. We don’t really don’t go on vacation. I tried going on vacation last summer; we went up to Maine for a week—that was the most vacated I’ve ever been. It’s weird. Work is relaxing to me. When I put a show up people were like, “Are you going to take any time off?” No I’m not going to take any time off! I was getting the work ready for the show and now I’m really excited for the other projects I didn’t have time for. There’s always more ideas than there’s time to execute them.
How long have you been slicing up money?
The first bill that I cut up was in 1999, I think. I was doing portraits made from the cut-up money, mostly of friends, sort of creating personal value from monetary value.
Is that what attracted you to dollar bills as a medium in the first place? The idea of value?
No. The attraction in the first place was that it was a tremendously common piece of paper. Prior to that I used to collage with all sorts of things. I had lots of friends who smoked so I had lots of cigarette packages and I still use those boxes to store things in. But the soft packs I would do a lot of collages with and the familiarity of the packaging, especially to smokers, were really popular. I thought, “What are some other common pieces of paper?”
I started cutting up bills because of that. I realized I accidentally tripped into something that people thought about or specifically avoided thinking about—you’re worried about losing the money that you have, not having enough money… It’s easy to make conceptual art because you can depict anything in money and it seems like you’re saying something.
You must be really familiar with every millimeter of the dollar bill by now.
There’s a fun trick I recommend at parties: Try to draw a dollar bill. For having this thing in your hand all the time, you don’t actually know what it looks like. All the drawings look terrible. Me and Kat, we know it really well because we work with it. A couple times a year we both try to draw it from memory. There’s stuff you always get wrong, even us—anytime I try to draw Washington he always looks bad, because I’m a bad drawer. Which is another reason why I do the collage work. It’s a stilted way to draw that works for me. Whereas with a pencil I’m all thumbs. I don’t know why, but I’m glad it works, because if I had to live off my drawings it wouldn’t happen.