Low Price, High Value
A local artist's take on pennies, Skid Row and ancient geometry
Sarah Mero, known by her alias $¢mero or simply initials $¢, lives and works at an underground artist collective at 5th and Wall called Catalyst. Mero (pronounced “marrow”) thinks of herself as unknown, though her street art is visible around the Historic Core and Skid Row. Pennies are the common material between her more permanent oeuvre- mosaics made of copper coins - and her street installations, hats, and site specific works, like a sculptural piece depicting SWAT team officers and protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement shown at Roy Alexander Gallery last January. Her full-scale penny mosaics have yet to be shown in a gallery, but I viewed some at Catalyst and in storage. Depicting mythology related to Downtown and the plight of the penny, her honeycomb arrays of treated coins mounted to wood are named for their actual cent value. Mero’s largest and most ambitious piece, an installation that pays homage to a woman who was found dead in a water tank atop the Hotel Cecil (photo on opposite page), is titled “$111.15.” That’s 11,115 pennies, hand-manipulated by Mero alone. Mero moved to Catalyst less than a year ago after ditching her second job as a waitress and deciding to focus on her art full time. Her discipline and physical strength stem from an athletics-focused upbringing in a Minneapolis suburb. She doesn’t own a bed, opting to sleep on a couch in her studio or on the floor. And she considers her dog, Nala, to be her in a purer form. She took us on a tour of Catalyst and her studio in July.
PU: Why pennies?
SM: After 1982, pennies were made of only 2.5 percent copper, just a coating on them. So on this piece, all these [post-82 pennies] are stripped, and the blue ones are pre-82 coins that I sandblasted and then applied patina. Originally I didn’t know that you could do that because I’m not trained in art so I was just fucking with chemicals like vinegar and hydrochloric acid and stuff like that.
PU: In 1982, did the penny compound change because of the rising value of copper?
SM: I think so, because there’s no reason why pennies should be around. Not to go too into conspiracy theories, but I go to the bank and pick them up and there are still pre-’82 pennies in there, but maybe like 5 for every 50. And because money’s arbitrary, you know, it’s whatever you want it to be…but when it comes to raw materials and metals, copper is so valuable. One solid copper penny—-that’s worth way more than a current penny, and if everyone figured that out, it could’ve been bad. So now these are all like fake pennies, you can tell just by holding them.
PU: Is there a distinction in your work between pre and post 82 pennies?
SM: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s like the number one thing I have to sort through. In fact if I don’t have time, I’ll just go online and buy the pre-82 ones. You can buy sorters that do that, but yeah, it changes what I am able to do. Chemicals aren’t going to react to [post-82 pennies] — even the ones that are coated in copper, they’re too shiny so they don’t take chemicals as well, and when I strip it or sandblast it, it takes it off, so I have to use the pre-82 coins to get certain effects.
PU: The style of the work seems similar amongst the different artists who live here - a lot of sculptures using mannequins in different ways. Do you think it’s more based on material share or just time spent together talking about your ideas?
SM: You know, both. A lot of it is material share because you use what you have here. Here’s a blueprint for “the Girl in the Water Tank.” I built it when I lived at the [Pacific Electric] Lofts and I could see the water tank from my room, so I tried not to think too much about it when I was doing it but looking back, it was crazy because I would take [my dog] out to go to the bathroom at 4 in the morning because I work through the night and I’d look over and the water tank is like right there. So for the original design, I started with this blueprint, then I do the math for it and it becomes about choosing which pennies are going to work. Honestly, the artistic process, in a sense, finishes here. And then the rest is crafting, trying to bring it to life.
PU: It seems like for you, a lot of the artistic process is in the choosing of subject matter to depict. You know, the Downtown-specific nature of your work.
SM: Yeah. I have a piece I call Hipster v. Homeless with one guy doing cocaine at The Lash, and then guy on the right is a homeless guy smoking crack on the east side of Main. They’re not so different. And with the girl in the water tank, even though this person might seem so crazy, she’s not that different from me. I feel like this art piece is a self-portrait on a mythological level. We’re all kind of drowning in our own minds sometimes…why did she go in there? How did she get there, was what she was running from even real? That’s even more terrifying than thinking she’s murdered, that she went in there by her own will because she conceived something that wasn’t true. Modern mythology is all around us.
PU: Especially in this neighborhood. That came out in the tree project you recently worked on—the symbolism of you trying to beautify the neighborhood with green. (Mero disassembled a tree that had been hit by a truck and fallen, setting up the branches in Skid Row so they looked like new trees in a neighborhood lacking green. She continued putting up art at the site where the tree fell).
SM: I was walking down the street last week and I saw that a tree had fallen over and I just stopped. I literally ran back to Catalyst because I didn’t know how long it was going to be there and grabbed a cart.
PU: Where was the tree?
SM: In front of the Rosslyn Lofts, on 5th. And I just went there and I started fucking box-sawing it up and I came home and I felt great and people were loving [the little tree sculptures] and then I thought, that tree is still there and it might be gone tomorrow. I was like I have to go so I went back out with the cart and loaded up the whole tree [to use for more installations]. And though it’s really seedy at night, you know everybody, they know I don’t judge them so they treat me with respect. I couldn’t have done it without their help. There were homeless people helping me load stumps into [the cart] because i couldn’t pick them up.
PU: Do you get responses from homeless people to your penny work?
SM: Oh yeah, well first of all they don’t get to see art anywhere so anytime they get to see that it’s really exciting for them. It breaks the whole whatever-there-is between us when they know you’re an artist because it’s like they look at you like you’re one of them and I feel like I am kind of one of them, I feel like I too have fallen off of society, I haven’t had a computer in over 2 years.
PU: Do you feel like living and working in Skid Row enables you to do that?
SM: Yeah, I could talk all night about the symbolism of the penny but it is on par exactly with Downtown. That’s not something I planned for, that’s something above me, but totally. [The penny] was once something that was valued, that went to shit, that is making a comeback. It’s very on par with downtown, what’s going on around me.
PU: I feel like the pennies must know about you.
SM: You know, they’re not as dirty as people think. See, it goes to homeless people again…homeless people won’t even pick up the pennies but you know what’s dirtier than a penny? A hundred dollar bill and people just put it up their nose no fucking problem. That bacteria goes straight to your brain.
PU: Besides the fascination of the mythology, why is Downtown so important to you?
SM: Because you have to have a center to go back to! Some people think, “Well what makes LA LA is that it’s all [secluded] parts.” I’m not trying to take away the pockets, but we need to have a soul. This city needs to have a soul and a soul is where it comes from: where it started, where it began, the history.
PU: How do you think Skid Row fits into the soul of the city?
SM: Well, it’s forcing us to look at the truth and you can’t escape it in a city. All the problems are so apparent, like that there is a third world country right down the street from here. That has implications beyond LA. Living in the city makes you notice that. If you’re living in all these little pockets and doing your own thing and driving around, it’s easy to avoid.
PU: Looking around your studio, a lot of the images involve a magnetism of a central point.
SM: Yes, they’re based on geometry that has been around since the beginning of time, depicting that everything is going towards the point of the all knowing eye at the center. You have different perspectives here that are looking at the same thing. I feel like the generation I came out of is very postmodernist and nihilist, [championing] the idea that everything is relative. They think truth is whatever it is to you. But that’s not what relativity is trying to say. All it’s saying is truth is relative to your position from it and thats a big misunderstanding.
PU: So the misunderstanding is that they think there’s no such thing as one truth?
SM: Yeah. It’s like saying, “Well, different countries have different beliefs, so there is no moral right, no truth.” That’s like saying, well, because there are different colors, there’s no light. The fact that variation exists shows that there’s something to vary from. It’s all the same center, but it looks different from over here than it does from over there. But we’re all looking at the same thing. I just think that postmodernism spawned art with no center. I feel like I’m a renegade for saying that I believe in God. I feel like people are going to make me up to be stupid when I’m not. There is a truth and it is important that we can recognize it, because that’s when people realize we’re the same. If you’re over there and I’m here I’m never going be able to get over there exactly, but if you make art and I see your art, it transcends reality. That’s what art can do that nothing else can do.