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Bucking the System 

Donovan Clark's money-art at Missing Link Records

In these times of economic uncertainty, money is on everyone's mind. Actually, it doesn't really matter if times are good or bad, the power of money is a constant in our society. And we don't just use it to buy burgers and beer. All too often it is the yardstick by which we measure an individual's value, his or her worth to society. In the words of philosopher Cyndi Lauper, "Money changes everything."

Even the art world often seems slave to the almighty dollar with artists trying to turn their art into cold, hard cash. Enter local artist Donovan Clark and his new exhibition, "Adding Value to Money," at Missing Link Records in Arcata. In a refreshing reversal, he's turning cold, hard cash into art.

Clark uses one-dollar bills as canvases, creating small works that often include popular culture icons. The Hulk, R2D2 and Tupac Shakur make appearances, among many others. Trompe l'oeil imagery is also incorporated into the images and patterns already on the bills. The resulting works are fun, visually interesting pieces that challenge us to reconsider our cash-obsessed notions of value.

First things first: Yes, it's legal. Probably. "I'm walking a thin line," said Clark in response to questions of legality. "I'm covering up the president and changing the imagery, but I haven't changed it completely [to] where you can't recognize it as a dollar." Based on Clark's reading of the law, the fact that his money-art pieces are still clearly dollar bills and the denomination has not been altered should be enough to keep him out of trouble.

Clark doesn't mind that his works walk a line between art and criminal act. He even attributes some of the positive response he's had to his money-art project to the fact that, like graffiti, the element of illegality actually makes the work feel edgier and draws people to it.

The money-art project got its start where so many things do, at the laundromat. When a change machine wouldn't take Clark's dollar bill, he noticed that someone had done a rough, ballpoint pen drawing of Batman on the bill. It got Clark thinking about possibilities. "I thought, how far can I take this money-art thing?" he said. "I'd seen lots of people draw on money before but I'd never seen anyone do little paintings on the dollars."

Clark, one of the founding members of the local art collective Empire Squared, was already interested in the idea of free art and sharing art with the public in non-traditional ways. His money-art project provided him with another outlet to do just that. "I started using the dollars as tips," Clark explained. "When I get a cup of coffee, I just put it in the tip jar. I felt like that would be a really cool surprise ... to get a dollar with a nice painting on it instead of just a regular dollar. So that's what I've been doing with most of them -- using them as tips when I get breakfast."

From the looks of it, the art-tips are much appreciated. Clark said that several local businesses have started taking the bills out of tip jars and displaying them for patrons to enjoy. You might see some of Clark's bills the next time you visit places like Café Brio, Wildberries and Ramone's.

Because many of the money-art pieces do end up "in circulation," Clark has been cataloging them on various social media sites to keep a record and as another avenue to share the work. As a result, an element of interactivity entered into the project. Clark said that several of the pieces he's done have been inspired by ideas from his Twitter followers. The fact that the project has sparked this kind of dialog between artist and audience is something Clark seems to relish.

As the project progressed and gained recognition, Clark started keeping some bills to show in a more traditional manner. Several bills were displayed as part of an Empire Squared group show at Piante Gallery in Eureka earlier in the year, but the Missing Link exhibition represents his first solo money-art show. And yes, the bills will be for sale. "I'm not opposed to making money off of my art," Clark said wryly, "but that's definitely not why I'm doing it. I'm more interested in the idea of sharing my art."

"Adding Value to Money" will be on display at Missing Link Records in Arcata (1073 H. St.) from Nov. 9 until Dec. 7. There will be a dollar-themed opening from 6-9 p.m. on Nov. 9, with music and snacks in conjunction with Arts! Arcata.

For a preview, search out Clark's money-art online at the following sites:,, and

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Jason Marak

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