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Artist's coins used as currency in Frederick

FREDERICK, Md. — His coins are not U.S. Mint, but they are worth some green.

For Frederick artist Robert Strasser, what began several years ago as making small pendants with children at a summer camp has become a project of creating alternative currency for three downtown businesses.

The idea of using small pieces of ceramic art as currency began during his travels when the 47-year-old Strasser was younger.

"I was able to barter in some of the places," he said. "I started to sort of think, 'Well, maybe it is sort of a substitute for or alternative to money.'"

Strasser got hooked on pottery in high school, he said. He majored in biology in college and has worked in science for much of his adult life, but "I always made time for ceramics because I love to work with clay so much."

In late 2011, he began approaching Frederick businesses with an idea. He would make batches of personalized "trade stones," which they could then buy and use as recirculating gift certificates. If the business owners were so inclined, they could even accept stones from other downtown businesses.

So far, Cafe Nola, The Orchard restaurant and the Center of the Four Winds Studio are participating. A few other businesses are considering the proposal, Strasser said.

Rose Sincevich, owner of Four Winds, said she knew immediately that she wanted to get involved.

"The people who come to me have a consciousness about community and economy and the collective experience of downtown Frederick," she said. "This just seemed like it would be a really good fit to help foster those connections."

Strasser had the same idea. Other American cities have similar programs to promote local commerce, he said.

As Jim Hickey, owner of The Orchard, put it, they are creating a "micro-economy."

Baltimore has BNotes, Ithaca had Ithaca Hours, and the Berkshire region of Massachusetts has BerkShares. None of these places, however, are using handmade stones as part of their initiatives.

That twist makes Frederick unique, Strasser said. "It's something that will help make Frederick stand out as a destination for the arts, too," he said.

The artistic element of the stones is Hickey's favorite part, he said.

"Mainly, I like the looks of them," he said.

Stones for participating businesses so far feature their logos, their names or both.

Strasser said he is excited by the prospect of getting more businesses involved so he can have fun making designs for their coins — a miniature pretzel for Pizza & Pretzel Creations or a pint glass for a bar, for example.

The participating businesses now have the value of their coins set at $20. They cost businesses between $8 and $12 each for orders of 25 to 50.

Strasser's private collection of handmade, silver dollar-sized coins, however, is priceless to him.

"It's a travelogue of my life," he said.

They feature a range of textures, from the three-dimensional mold of a beetle on one to the pattern of a diamondback terrapin shell on another. Elements of his pieces have come from places as far away as Japan, Mount Kilimanjaro and Patagonia, South America.

Strasser hopes one day to do an artistic installation with his personal works, but he has high hopes for his latest project, too.

"These are pieces of art that can recirculate indefinitely," he said. "It excites me to think that my creative work might recirculate around for a long time ... and I guess it excites me that people are imaginative enough to try this."

Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post,