Penny wise: Brooklyn Park man builds a massive U.S. coin map

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2014 - 8:31 AM

A Brooklyn Park man has mapped out a massive, coin-operated piece of “big crazy artwork” -- a U.S. map made of 24,000 pennies enclosed in glass.

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John Ebert explained how he takes into consideration the curvature of the Earth in making his U.S. map of pennies.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS, Star Tribune

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The living room in John Ebert’s Brooklyn Park townhouse is, well, unlivable.

The sofa and chairs have been pushed into the dining room. In their place are large sawhorses supporting a massive pane of glass covered with small tubes. Pieces of taut string extend from several points to the living room ceiling and connect to a GoPro camera.

Every time Ebert fills up one of the tubes with pennies, the camera clicks, making another frame in what will be a stop-motion video of Ebert’s “big crazy artwork”: a map of the United States made out of 24,000 pennies and enclosed in glass.

Think of it as crop art, with copper-coated currency in place of corn kernels and rye seeds.

“I get a lot of comments like ‘You must be brilliant to do that’ and ‘You must be crazy to do that,’ ” he said, “sometimes from the same person.”

Ebert has calculated that by the time the map is done in May, he will have poured almost 700 hours and $3,709 into the project.

The only thing he hasn’t determined is what the heck he’ll do with it.

“When it’s done, I’ll get three or four strong people to move it,” said Ebert, 51. “Nothing is arranged. I’d unveil it, and if there were 10 people we could do it in my garage, but if there were 100 people, we could do it in a gallery or a hotel convention room and have a party.”

And after the unveiling of the 7- by 4-foot, 554-pound behemoth?

Well, he isn’t sure about that, either.

“I hope to sell it. Otherwise I’ll try to get it into a museum or an art gallery,” he said. “If no one buys it, I might build a house and put it in there.”

Ultimately, Ebert’s goal isn’t to gain fame or fortune. He just wants to complete his mission of “setting up a pretty big challenge for myself, and methodically taking two or three years to get it done.”

Oh, and to get his living room back.

Ebert is chronicling his project on a website called, appropriately enough, Determination.

Not his first penny rodeo

One of the pages, “The Original,” features photos of a decidedly smaller but still impressive U.S. map he made out of pennies 10 years ago.

“I don’t know what made me do that,” he said. “I just started toying around with some kind of picture. I think I went with the map because I’m mathematically minded.”

He eventually dismantled that map, but kept the pennies that he collected over two decades.

In 2012, Ebert and his girlfriend, Dr. Vivian Rider, came across a portrait — done in pennies, of course — of the man whose portrait graces that coin, Abraham Lincoln.

That got Ebert to thinking about doing a second, much larger map.

He showed photos of his first map to the Ripley’s Museum in Orlando (where the Lincoln portrait hangs), and “they liked it. My thoughts were, ‘I live my life like I’m an ordinary person, but I can do something that is cool and interesting to others.’ ”

Making that map a reality was almost equal parts electronic and physical work. Ebert’s meticulous nature and his software skills (he’s a data-services engineer by day) helped the planning immensely.

Ebert wrote computer programs to plan the construction, borders and colors of each state, as well as the geographical perspective. (For example, most two-dimensional maps make the Canadian borderline from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean look curved, when in fact it is straight on the globe.)

The colors were “a whole other program,” he said, made more difficult by the fact that pennies come in three basic hues: shiny, dark and in between. Through arduous sorting, with longtime friend Kelly Weyrauch sometimes pitching in, Ebert was able “to stretch the in-betweens into two colors” and give himself four shades to make the states distinct.

That meant examining every last penny — “by far the most boring and miserable part of the job” — to pick the ones whose “heads” would form the front of the map and whose “tails” would bring up the rear. More physical labor ensued: building the frame (where his hobby as a woodcarver came in handy) and drilling thousands of acrylic tubes, blessedly for only one hour at a time.

“That’s the only time it feels like work,” he said, “but there is a meditative quality to it. It can be relaxing.

“But 90 percent of this has been fun.”

Programs, labor galore

Ebert, a soft-spoken, thoughtful sort, is very well suited for this unusual kind of undertaking, said Weyrauch.

“He’s a nice mixture of a technical person and an artist,” said Weyrauch, Ebert’s roommate back in their days at the University of Minnesota. “He thinks like a software engineer, hyper-analytical. But he’s also a very good trumpet player. It’s a cool mixture of his personality, looking for the best way to do things, but thinking about everything from many angles.”

Now that most of the hard work is done, Ebert remains unsure what to call this work. On the one hand, his website says, “this is something very pedestrian, done up in an unusual medium and size. … [with] the presence of a sculpture, but the picture of a painting.”

True, that. But is it art or is it science?

“To me it’s about 75 percent science, with the construction and all, and 25 percent art,” Ebert said. “I just hope people like it.”

 Bill Ward • 612-673-7643



 

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