Coining A New Craft
Walking into Shellee Graham’s house is a spectacular sight—one cannot help but be enveloped by the beauty of her numismatic photography displayed along the walls. Shellee is a professional photographer and graphic designer with a passion for cataloguing historical currency from all over the world. Hung prominently on a bright orange wall is the first piece she ever created, History Instructing Youth, which is based on the artwork of a rare dollar bill from turn-of-the-century America. The piece showcases an etching of the figure History directing a young boy to the US Constitution in brilliant, varying hues. It is such a beautiful piece—it’s almost easy to forget the bill was once used as currency. This is what Shellee loves about creating numismatic art.
In her work as a photographer at APMEX, an online precious metal dealer, she has the privilege of personally viewing the money that comes through the archive. When a bit of currency is particularly intriguing, Shellee begins her creative process. She captures a high-resolution image of the currency, adds color and definition, and selects other relevant historical accoutrements to accompany the money itself. The accessories can include portraits of historical figures, signatures, or phrases that enrich and illuminate the context of the currency. Every canvas that Shellee creates has its own distinctive story, and the inspiration for a piece can come from anywhere. “Early on, I became enamored with the artists, sculptors, and engravers whose creations appear on U.S. currency of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” she said. It is the history and personality of an individual dollar bill or coin that sparks inspiration.
One piece is devoted entirely to the year 1926, when the historical Route 66 was established. The piece is rich in Oklahoma and national history, including a photograph of a Miss America contestant from that year, as well as photographic footage from the highway. While Oklahoma may be Shellee’s home, she doesn’t mind branching out of the Sooner state for inspiration. Her “Big Money” collection features pieces on Dwight Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth II, among others.
Shellee’s latest venture illustrates, what she calls, the numismatic alphabet. She takes extreme close-up photos of coins—and the letters on them—to create personalized pieces of art with the mint information and background of each coin. These close-ups are not only special because they are unique to the buyer, but also because each letter has its own form of beauty in the font, level of relief, and coin history. It is fascinating to learn where each individual letter originated—what year, what mint, and how it came to be a part of history, from all corners of the world.
This is the crux of Shellee’s artistic endeavor—the myriad of connections between cultures, generations and individuals that can be held in the palm of one’s hand. In her artist’s statement, Shellee says of money, “We see it often enough that we rarely look at it from an artistic point of view.” She takes the bits of paper and metal that we take for granted, and makes all of it into something beautiful, nostalgic and personal. Viewing her work is dazzling and humbling; the grandiose melds with the mundane in pieces that are full of color, texture and the vivacity of life.
Shellee’s work can be found at www.shelleegraham.com.