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Tiny canvas makes cents for penny artist

Most people would walk by a lone penny on the sidewalk. Why bother? But to Jacqueline Lou Skaggs, it's a canvas -- and an inspiration.

Jacqueline Lou Skaggs

"The Still Life, 1976"

The New York-based artist has been working on meticulous mini-masterworks on the common one-cent coin since the 1990s.

"Of all coins, it is the penny that is so neglected and blatantly discarded," she said in an email interview. "It was only this intrinsic 'valuelessness' that interested me. I wasn't interested in painting miniatures -- I was interested in painting on pennies."

She has created 12 of the small works (all viewable here) and has sold two so far, both last year. They are an extension of her other art interests; Skaggs has been working with found objects -- "mainly banal, utilitarian things," she says, for years. As a penny-from-the-street collector, she was fascinated by discarded coins and recognized that by painting on them, she'd skirt the edge of kitsch.

"I knew when I conceived of the work that it would border (on) 'novelty,' but classical realism and miniature works tend to as well -- styles throughout art history often take on a language of their own.... I knew that I would be embracing those ideas, too," she said. "I was so interested in the discourse between the images and the coins that the novelty simply became part of the language."

She places emphasis on each work's title, noting that each work has a particular meaning. "Kisses and Ghosts" comes from a portrait of her mother as a child and reflects a report she once read asking what children were most afraid of -- the top answers being "kisses" and "ghosts." "The Still Life" is "too still," and "Venus Dreams" is simply a dreaming Venus. "Give me wings for arms any day," said Skaggs.

She's received a lot of attention since the penny art went viral recently, but has mixed emotions about how that's come about. For one thing, she does not do commissions and feels the set of 12 pennies is complete. But most troubling, she said, is that her images have been distributed around the Internet without the titles attached.

"People are predictably and generally wooed by the scale and skill," she writes. "It's the risk an artist takes with their craft. Which is quite ironic, annoying and fulfilling at the same time to me, because this work has so much, if not everything, to do with that kind of carelessness and oversight."

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