Stacey Lee Webber, 34, of Philadelphia's Frankford section: She's cashing in on an unusual niche, transforming pennies, dimes, and quarters into sculptures, striking wall art, and stylish jewelry.
Webber studied metalsmithing and making jewelry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she made a series of sculptures of tools made from pennies for her master's thesis about outsourcing and the declining value placed on American blue-collar labor. When she used the same skills to make Christmas gifts of coin jewelry for her sisters, she saw the potential to turn her art into a business. She and her husband, artist Joseph LeRoux, came to Philadelphia in search of studio space and set up shop at Globe Dye Works in 2011.
Webber uses traditional metalsmithing techniques, cutting each coin by hand with a jeweler's saw and soldering them together or bending them.
"That's why a pair of Abe Circled earrings" - each one a penny with only Lincoln's silhouette and the coin's rim intact - "are like $50 instead of 2 cents," she said. "I have to put more value into it."
Along the way, she's learned more than she ever really wanted to know about legal tender: She can use only pre-1983 pennies that are pure copper, and vintage silver dimes and quarters. Some metal-alloy coins will melt under the heat of the soldering iron.
For her sculptures and vessels, she makes her own sheet metal out of rows of pennies, then bends it into shape. For wall art, flocks of birds, herds of buffalo, or rows of presidential silhouettes are tacked into wooden panels with pins or held in place with a thin layer of resin.
"People ask me if it's legal all the time. It's not illegal. You have to have fraudulent intent for it to be illegal. I've been curated in a lot of shows now that are money-themed, so I know other money artists now. It's lost its sort of Bonnie-and-Clyde aspect. But I still get a kick out of making this penny sculpture that's all about the amount of labor I put into it and whatever value I deem it worth - but the actual cost of materials was nothing."
Webber has her eye on a new water-jet laser cutter, Wazer, a design by University of Pennsylvania engineering graduates that recently raised $1.4 million on Kickstarter. That tool will be ready next fall.
Until then, she's still cutting pennies one at a time. She's using them in collaborations, like metal lids for ceramic pots by Justin Rothshank. And she recently bought her first gold coin, though she hasn't worked up the nerve to cut into it. For now, she said, "I still can think of zillions of things with pennies I want to do, but I just haven't had time to do them yet."
Webber's work is in the gift shop at the U.S. Mint and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and online at staceyleewebber.com. She will also be showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Thursday through next Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, pmacraftshow.org.