We are the stories we tell and the way we seek to express ourselves.
Much has been said about how the ability to create and tell stories influences the evolution of the human species. Israeli historian Yuval Harari, in his book “Sapiens,” argues that it was the ability to imagine stories and believe in them that allowed homo-sapiens to organise themselves into large groups of hundreds or thousands of individuals. It is this need to express ourselves that drives us to use creative methods to capture a piece of reality, creativity and imagination.
In our series of featured artists we have seen expression take the form of printmaking, collage, embroidery and digital composition, using banknotes and coins as substrates. In London, the Quiet British Accent have been making coin art since 2011.
From The Beginning To Pennydrops
Quiet British Accent (QbA) are an outfit, namely Sharon and Jason Gale. They both went to Technical Colleges in North London in the 1980s. Jason studied Graphic Design; Sharon studied Fashion and Textiles and went on to work in the fashion industry.
“I had the opportunity to work in a graphics studio of a toy factory, that’s where Jason and met.” Sharon Gale
“Over time we had discussed the idea of working together and in 2011 we set up QbA. Our influences spread across vernacular language, pop culture, collecting and ephemera.” Jason Gale
With a primarily text-based work, Sharon and Jason experimented with different substrate. “We started out experimenting with hand cut lettering styles using stencils, paper and textiles. Then drifted into hand painted slogans on found objects, at some point we started painting on old pre-decimal pennies and placing them out on the street, mostly in East London.”
QbAs art is designed to interact with the public in a playful way. “We liked the idea that they would offer a thought provoking, intimate interaction with the passer-by. It’s everyone’s instinct to pick up a penny.
My dad gave me an old penny years ago and I had it blu-tacked onto my computer. Subconsciously staring at it for all those years must have been a factor in deciding to use them in our art. We call our pennies #pennydrops.”
“Pennies are ephemeral things which have a long history of carrying messages, from advertisements to political slogans and love tokens.”
Sharon and Jason define QbAs style as identity of its own “quite homespun and a bit graphic; mostly hand drawn lettering with some borrowed sign writing techniques. Sometimes sewing as well, as we use a mixture of media including, more recently, digital NFTs on the Hic Et Nunc platform; taking Victorian pennies into crypto currency makes us smile.
”People often ask us who does what on an artwork. We both paint pennies but I tend to also do the 3D stuff and Jason will work more on the digital side. He thinks more in 2D, so it all works well. We sometimes gild pennies with 23ct gold leaf, again using traditional equipment and techniques. The mere idea of a gold penny is lovely. We also try to keep to a limited colour palette to focus our minds and for recognition.”
Each coin is intervened with bright colours and bold hand-painted typography, making each coin a unique piece of art, but at the same time understood as part of a series.
“Old pennies are little pieces of history and we use them to pass on contemporary messages in unexpected places.”
Sharon and Jason’s artwork on the pennies seeks to highlight the historical significance of each coin. “As well as being great carriers of messages, old coins have their own individual history. Most of the pennies we use were in circulation between 1860 and 1970 and we sometimes nod to a pennies date. For example, during the recent pandemic, we used pennies from the 1890s, the time of the ‘Russian Flu’ pandemic in the UK.
“Coins are small and that allows our use of language to take centre stage on them. We also want to go big though, we’re planning big pennies in the future. There are also two sides to a coin which can be fun to play with. Using actual money in our art also asks how you value art. Are we adding value to old coins, or devaluing antiques?”
About Money Art And Its Challenges
For QbA Money Art is “any piece which references currency in a major way.” Working with such a small format brings certain challenges. ”The small scale brings challenges when painting – we’ve honed our miniature painting skills over the last few years. It’s hard to paint tiny letters in a straight line on gold leaf (you can’t use pencil guide lines on gold leaf), Sharon has created a tiny parallel motion that is used just for the gilded pennies.”
Of course, like all artistic manifestations, public reaction is important. ”We’ve been on the receiving end of some trolling. Some folk take exception to us painting/defacing coins. We try to inject a bit of humour if we reply.”
”People seem to appreciate small art, especially if they happen to stumble across it on the street where a lot of street art is quite large. The pennies we painted during the pandemic went down well. We stuck encouraging penny messages on the street during our ‘Government permitted’ exercise time. People definitely like looking out for pennies when they’re out and about.”
“It’s nice when people send us a photo of themselves with a penny they’ve just found. We vary our drops though, so whilst some are found within minutes, some can sit undiscovered for years.”
The pandemic was an opportunity to take art from the streets to the digital world, connecting with wider audiences: “During the first lockdown we devised a Bowie-themed virtual #pennydrops hunt which was well received. Taking our pennies online allowed us to keep in touch with people and give us something else to focus on. There were five pennies to ‘find’ over a period of five weeks, with one clue given each week.”
Making Art with Purpose
QbAs years of artistic trajectory has allowed them to experiment with different themes, as Sharon says, “I recently focused on the link between poverty and prison in artwork for the 2021 Prison Residencies at Shepton Mallet Prison, Somerset, researching petty crimes committed in Victorian times by female prisoners and their subsequent harsh sentences. The artwork consisted of painted pre-decimal pennies chained together, which hung from Victorian style prison aprons which I sewed from worn, antique linen, embroidered with the names and crimes of two women incarcerated at Shepton Mallet Prison in 1859.”
Jason recognises that there is a recurring theme: “Using old currency in our work naturally brings to mind the themes of worth and value. There’s also a bit of history in there with comparisons between the date of the penny and the present day come into play when we reference something current on a penny.”
QbAs work has been seen in several exhibitions: “We’ve had work in OverDrawn Dayz Gallery in Margate, UK. Darren Main the gallery owner published a book called ‘For the Love of Money Art’ which includes QbAs work. Darren administers a Facebook Group with the same name. We had a virtual exhibition at ChopperChunky Gallery, run by Marc Craig, at the beginning of 2022. Called ‘What’s Words Worth?’ The theme of the show was ‘value’ and we included a limited edition print that you could choose the price of.”
If you want to know more about the art of QbA follow them on their Instagram or visit their website.