Spreading Love & Luck

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The Penny Project Brings Boise Couple Years of Joy

by Sara Mitton Cox, photos by Mark Dyrud

When Jeanne Huff talks about The Penny Project she helped create, her eyes light up. A bit of the joy that lives in the mission shrines through. But tears are right under the surface. The Penny Project can be described as an act of kindness, a social experiment, interactive art, even a book; but most of all, it’s a love story.

It all began nearly 14 years ago after a day of brainstorming in a coffee shop with Huff’s friend who lived two doors down, Bob Neal. The two were fed up with the bad in the world. It was 2002 and people were still shaken by the terror attacks of September 11. The news was filled with doom and gloom.

“It was hard to get a smile from people on the street,” Huff remembers. Huff and Neal wanted to do something to spread joy, to simply bring some happiness to people when things were scary and uncertain.

They thought about randomly handing out lottery tickets, but they didn’t have a lot of money to spare. Bob was an artist and wanted to do something beautiful in theory and visually; he wanted it to be art.

The two left the coffee shop out of ideas, and in the parking lot, Huff saw a shiny new penny heads up. “Find a penny, pick it up, all day you’ll have good luck, I recited as I grabbed it,” said Huff. “And Bob said, I think we just found our idea.”

The two began their experiment at the Capital City Public Market in Boise. Armed with pennies and a camera, they scattered the coins about, heads up, of course. Then, they waited from a distance in the crowd.

“It was a little like fishing,” recalled Huff. “You had to wait quite a while. Then someone would finally pick one up. We snapped a photo of their expression as they picked up the penny. Usually it was sheer joy.” The photos were the art part of it Neal was after.

Huff and Neal were amazed at what a little coin would do. They heard people happily saying the familiar penny rhyme. They overheard stories like, “my mom always said pennies were lucky, or you’re supposed to put them in your shoe.”

They were hooked. They started taking pennies all over town— the airport, the mall, the county fair, always hiding to snap a photo at the moment of discovery, never talking to the penny recipients because they believed that would be interfering with their moment of joy, their found luck.

“We watched one guy pick up a penny on the sidewalk, waiting at a red light to cross the street. He looked at the penny, then took off across the street. I guess he thought the penny would keep him from getting hit.” Huff remembered with a smile. “Maybe it did.”

As The Penny Project grew, so did the relationship between Huff and Neal. They were falling in love. They spent the next few years planting pennies in their spare time across Boise and then other places—Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore, and the famous Miracle Mile in Chicago. They were struck that no matter where you were, or who was there, it was the same thing. Delight in picking up a shiny penny.

They showcased photos of The Penny Project in art shows at local coffee shops and studios. They told tales of the many smiles caused by people slipping lucky pennies into their pockets. Huff even wrote a book about the experience called All Day Long using her pseudonym Scarlett Jones.

Huff and Neal married in 2006, four years after dreaming up The Penny Project. “Those lucky pennies became the focal point of our thoughts, the intention behind the rest of our lives,” explained Huff. “Bob called me his Silver Lining Girl. I always wanted to find the happiness.”

Huff admits it’s been hard to find her positive spirit lately. Neal was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in June of 2015 and got very sick right away. He passed away just months later in September.

It didn’t surprise Huff that The Penny Project was still at the top of his mind at the end of his life. She made an audio recording of Neal during his last days expressing his wish to grow the project even more, encourage people to participate all over the world, and then share that experience.

Huff is determined to make his wish a reality. She recently launched a website, BobsArtFarm.com, that will house The Penny Project revival and display some of Bob’s art. She hopes it will spur people to do their own Penny Projects around the globe. The website will also feature an interactive blog so people can share their stories.

“The Penny Project created joy times three,” said Huff. “It made the penny finder smile, it brought us so much happiness, and it delighted those who experienced it through an art show or book.” Now Huff is working to take it to the next level, because now The Penny Project is about more than joy and luck. It’s about the legacy of Bob Neal’s spirit, art, life, and love.

Surel’s Place, a non-profit artist-in-residence program in Boise will be hosting an art show to pay homage to Bob Neal September 30 – October 2, 2016. To submit a proposal of art to be featured, or for more information, visit surelsplace.org/bobsartfarm.