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Rural Missouri Magazine

Where a Dollar Goes
Springfield Artist's $20,000 search for "paint"

by Bob McEowen

Dean Bracy wrote his return address and a brief message on 20,000 dollar bills in an effort to collect postcards for a photo mosaic. He says all the cards and letters he's received show the "beauty of humanity."

"Where does a dollar go? Send me a postcard. ddB, Rte. 1, Box 282, Highlandville, MO 65669. Have a great day!"

What would you do if you saw this note written on the back of a dollar bill? Would you respond, like the note asks, with a postcard to "ddB"?

So far, some 3,500 people have answered Dean Bracy's question about a dollar's travels. They've not only sent postcards but letters, photographs, mementos, catalogs, business cards, religious tracts and even a seed packet.

One person, an attorney, offered to defend Bracy for defacing currency.

Many of the notes recount travels, experiences and other personal details of the sender's life. It's more than Bracy expected.

"It's the beauty of humanity," he says. "All they know is that they found a dollar with a note on it. Somehow that dollar touched them."

Bracy reaches into the latest stack of mail and selects an envelope with a California postmark.

"Look at this beautiful card. And they sent the dollar back! I guarantee what she wrote is as pure and sincere as the day is long," Bracy says as he begins to read the card: "You asked where a dollar goes and now you know. I am returning your dollar to you. I hope you enjoy sending it again," the card reads.

"Now that is beautiful," Bracy says. "That humbles me. It just shows how insignificant my part is."

Bracy never intended for people to send the money back. Instead, he wants the dollars — 20,000 in all — to travel far and wide and touch as many people as possible.

The 39-year-old artist first wrote a note on a small batch of dollar bills in the late 1980s. After people responded he began looking for a way to use the concept in his art, which has included stained glass, iron sculpture and wood in the past.

Two years ago, while attending a photo mosaic exhibit in Seattle, his plan came together. "I'm there 30 seconds and I knew what to do," he says. "I was going to take postcards and paint with them."

Bracy decided to arrange postcards so that when viewed from a distance they would create a larger image. He won't reveal what his final mosaic will look like but says it will measure 16 feet by 20 feet.

He's going to need a lot of postcards — at least 4,000 he estimates.

After checking with the Treasury Department to make sure writing in the margins of currency is not illegal (it isn't) he persuaded a friend to loan him $10,000. In the fall of 1999 Bracy, who was then living in Arizona, ordered 10 bundles of uncirculated bills and began writing. His message included a Post Office box in Highlandville, Mo., where he has family.

Dean Bracy wrote his message in the margins of dollar bills he deposited in a Springfield bank.

Two and a half months later he finished. He boarded an airplane with a box of money under his arm and moved back home to Springfield.

"I went down to Empire Bank and opened an account with 10,000 dollar bills. As soon as that posted I wrote a check for $10,000 and sent it to my friend," Bracy says.

"I can not express enough the shock of this lady I opened the account with. I'm not sure she was too pleased."

Now all Bracy had to do was wait for the postcards to arrive. He waited longer than expected while the money sat in a Treasury Department warehouse for six months.

"I figured something had gone wrong. I just wrote it off," Bracy says. "I said to myself, 'Well, you tried.'"

On May 11, 2000, he went to the Post Office and found 32 replies. The next day brought 19 more. The following day 37. The cards and letters have not stopped since.

Bracy's bills entered the "rivers of commerce" at San Francisco and Denver but the money has traveled far from those cities. He has received mail from every state but Delaware. He also has postmarks from Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and the Middle East.

The Treasury says the life span of a dollar bill is about 18 months. To keep postcards coming Bracy prepared and deposited another $10,000. That money, which appeared first in Atlanta and St. Louis, is reaping results now.

It's a process that Bracy says he does not fully understand. "Why would people take the time and effort?" he asks. He does have a theory, though.

"I wrote 'Have a great day!' 20,000 times and I meant it. I was very sincere about that and I just think somehow that came through when people read the message."

All the heart-felt cards and letters — which fill 21 thick binders divided into categories — mean more than the material Bracy needs to create art.

"My initial motivation was to get paint. Well, the written text itself is far more beautiful than any picture I could ever do," he says. "My hope as an artist is that I can keep up with the caliber of the written text."

Bracy thinks he'll have enough postcards to begin the mosaic in about a year. Then he plans to create a traveling exhibit of both his art and the cards and letters. He says he hopes the project will earn a spot in the Smithsonian Institution.

"I've got something the world needs to see," he says. "If you take the time to sit down and read through these you see the beauty. It's blatant."

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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