Like many others, artist Mel Chin went to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans to see what he could do to help. And like many, he was overwhelmed by the devastation he saw.
But the artist, known for conceptual works that blend art, politics and science, ended up catalyzing a nationwide effort to address a problem that has plagued the city since well before the hurricane.
New Orleans, like many urban centers, has levels of lead in its soil that are as much as four times the limit deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2008, the North Carolina-based Chin began the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of lead contamination and poisoning. With participating institutions in nearly all 50 states, it aims to collect three million "Fundred Dollar Bills," unique interpretations of hundred dollar bills drawn by three million people.
When completed, the bills are picked up at designated "collection centers" by an armored truck — retrofitted to run on vegetable oil — that is currently making a 17,000-plus mile trip back and forth across the country. The truck will end its journey in Washington, D.C. next spring, where Chin intends to offer the three million hand-drawn bills to Congress and ask for 300 million real dollars in return to clean New Orleans' lead-contaminated soil. He has collected about 350,000 bills so far.
Chin is especially interested in contributions from children, the population most affected by lead poisoning, so the project has worked with many schools. Several Southland schools are participating as well as the Skirball Cultural Center, Pasadena's Side Street Projects and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which is holding a "Fundred Dollar Bill Drawing Party" Saturday
SMMoA's director of education, Asuka Hisa, has integrated the project into the museum's tours and outreach activities for the last two months. "Even the little kids, they all invest the time and effort into them as much as they can and then they let go, because they know that their art work has a bigger purpose," she says, "They can't vote, so this is sort of a beautiful lesson in having a voice in the process."
If Chin succeeds in exchanging these "voices" for real money, the funds will go toward "Operation Paydirt," a collaboration with toxicologist Howard Mielke and research scientist Dr. Andrew Hunt. They have developed a method of chemically transforming lead so that, although it remains in the soil, it can no longer be absorbed by the body.
Chin envisions New Orleans emerging "not as the place that needs help," but as a model for other cities. "It would be the first in the country to have a city-wide lead safe soil situation," he says, "You can rethink it as a rescue city."