Artist Mel Chin addresses vexing problems through art, science and community engagement

02/01/2013 2:57 PM

02/01/2013 9:00 PM

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mel Chin wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the people of New Orleans. But after several visits, he learned about a devastating problem that predated Katrina – toxic lead.

Chin is an internationally known artist whose work often incorporates practical solutions to problems. An artist-in-residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, he has been addressing the issue of childhood lead poisoning since 2007.

New Orleans, Chin says, is “a city that was more than just physically destroyed by Katrina. It was a city plagued by an invisible destructive element before the storm – toxic lead, not just in the soil and houses, but in the blood, bones and brains of children.”

Chin asked how much money was being allocated for a solution. The answer? Zero.

“A toxicologist told me that the entire city could probably be treated for $250-$300 million. And I said, ‘I can’t raise that much money, but I think we can make it.’”

So Chin started the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, in which people are creating hand-drawn $100 bills. His goal is to collect $300 million in handmade currency, deliver it to Washington, D.C., and ask Congress to exchange it for actual money to fund Operation Paydirt. Originally a landscape recovery program for New Orleans, Operation Paydirt now addresses numerous causes of childhood lead-poisoning throughout the country.

The exchange of Fundreds and real money may sound like a quixotic goal. But one outcome of the Fundred Dollar Bill Project is education, as people – mostly students – learn about lead poisoning, its impact on society and what to do about it.

“There is the poetry of the project,” says Chin, “but then there’s the pragmatic reality.”

Chin emphasizes that his social projects are not about him, but about the engagement of many. “It’s about having a child in Idaho who cares about this being respected or represented – giving the youngest population, which is also the most threatened, a voice in the matter.”

The McColl Center is the collection center for the Southeast.

The project is a source of lesson plans for teachers and a way for students to fulfill community service obligations. Participating schools include Garinger High, Myers Park High, Northwest School of The Arts and Sedgfield Middle School, as well as UNC Charlotte.

‘Different perspectives’

Combining original and existing research, Chin and his team, including Dr. Howard Mielke of Tulane University and Dr. Andrew Hunt of the University of Texas at Arlington, have identified a process – Treat Lock Cover – that lessens the toxicity of lead-contaminated soils.

Chin worked with the EPA’s Steve Calanog in an Oakland, Calif., neighborhood with an alarming incidence of childhood lead poisoning.

Chin “captivated my imagination,” says Calanog. “He painted a mental picture for me. We were talking about the same problem from different perspectives. His vision – of the science, the spirit and needs of community, protecting our planet and environment – knitted a lot of threads together for me.”

The 18-month project, completed in October 2012, involved soil remediation and repainting houses that had lead-based paint.

Importance of family

Born in Houston in 1951, Chin studied ceramics at Nashville’s Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University.

His restless imagination and energy could not be confined to a single medium, and he was eventually drawn to the borderless world of conceptual art. “Everything I do is based on concept, whether it’s an object or painting or a public action. The concept demands the tools, materials and methodologies to be found or invented.”

Chin tackles serious subjects with research, humor, generosity and an open mind.

A common thread in his work is the idea of bringing things back from the brink. He traces this to his teens, when he had a mysterious catatonic episode that took about a year to recover from. “I had to discover myself through myself and rebuild something that was lost.”

He also came to a profound understanding of the commitment his parents made. “They did not institutionalize me and they gave me time to heal. So maybe the model I use is the family that pulls you back from the brink after you’ve fallen.”

Chin moved to New York City in 1983 and lived there until the mid-’90s, when he took a chair at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. “It was the call of the South the option to go where my point of view might be challenged and thus expanded.”

He was drawn to a region rich in contrast, one that was still grappling with the remnants of institutionalized racism, but also a place where visionary art communities such as Black Mountain College took root and flourished.

Chin now lives outside Burnsville, about 35 miles north of Asheville.

The McColl Center believes that “artists are catalysts for social change; the Operation Paydirt project embodies this philosophy flawlessly,” says Executive Director Suzanne Fetscher. “It was a natural fit to invite Mel to be in residence and support his community-based practice.  He is a leader for future generations of artists that the center will welcome into our community.”

New projects

In addition to working on Operation Paydirt and learning more about the banking industry, Chin has begun more solitary, hands-on projects.

He’s in the midst of “Unauthorized Collaborations.” This series is based on heirloom family portraits that, now meaningless to their current owners, have been ripped from their frames and sold on sites such as eBay. In the process of restoring these abandoned paintings, Chin is altering them to create subtle commentaries on class distinction, spousal abuse and other subjects.

A variety of projects will be on view at “Recap,” his solo exhibition opening June 28 at McColl.

And now, Chin is developing a bank – the FREE (Fundred Reserve Even Exchange) Bank of America. Its trustees will include people in criminology, social sciences, public health, heart science and remediation science, and well as EPA researchers.

“These are the kinds of trustees we need,” he says, “to have a collective message.”

But the Fundred Dollar Bills are still among the most visible aspects of Chin’s project.

Lead poisoning is a hidden threat. “It’s invisible. So it’s a perfect project for art, to make something visible. And there’s nothing more visible than cash.”

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