To most people, flattened cardboard boxes are worthless. Which is precisely why Nick Mancillas turns them into canvases, and then into currency.
"One of my goals is to give value to the valueless," says Mancillas, who forages the cardboard from dumpsters and then creates mixed-media collages of the famous men (mostly presidents) whose stoic faces appear on our money. "I'm interested in a sort of artistic alchemy."
Reflecting both our obsession with money and our disposable society, the Cardboard Currency collection will be part of a show called "Follow the Money" opening May 23 at the new Chroma Gallery on South A Street in Santa Rosa.
"I'm not painting on top of cardboard because I'm poor," explains Mancillas, who's taught art at Piner High School for 20 years, "but because it's a throw-away material, the vernacular of the common people. And yet each box has a whole story behind it."
Often, the box's original purpose is reflected in the title of the piece, as in George Washington Mushrooms and Two Buck Jefferson, which features Thomas Jefferson (of the somewhat rare two-dollar bill) on a box of Charles Shaw (of the beloved "Two-Buck Chuck"). Created from the ephemeral papers of Mancilla's life, the pieces are also deeply personal: he cuts up and creates collages out of his own TSA reports, newspapers, food package labels and even photocopied Benjamins.
Reflecting what Mancillas calls the "economic colonialism" of our continent, he's also painted the less familiar (and even female!) faces of Canadian and Mexican currency, including a diptych of Queen Elizabeth, who appears on Canada's $20 bill, and Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet and nun who graces the 200 peso bill.
"I paint them backwards, to reflect the backwards nature of our economic reality," he says, "and because I don't want to be thought of as a forger."
Though he'd been making art his whole life, about seven years ago his two adolescent daughters inspired him to up the ante. "I realized that I couldn't control them," explains Mancillas, "but I could show them what it looks like to pursue your dreams."
For Mancillas, that meant earning an MFA in a low residency program at the Art Institute of Boston and booking shows in San Francisco and Sacramento. "I'm extremely grateful for the chance to show my art in my hometown of Santa Rosa," he says.
Given the ubiquity of plastic credit cards, "these are nostalgic images now," notes Mancillas, who is forthcoming about his own economic duress—a couple of houses lost to banks and two daughters in college.
His art, then, is ultimately about finding value where we least expect it. "If I could transform a turd into a gold nugget, and make it worth something to someone, I would."