- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) - There’s nothing unusual about seeing a bunch of coffee mugs in a coffee shop - unless the mugs are handmade and being given away for free by the artist who created them.

That’s what is happening at The Coffee House & Deli in Normal, where George Barreca spent a lunch hour setting out about 200 mugs he made.

“The idea behind it is to build community and encourage the gift economy through generosity,” said Barreca, a graduate student in fine arts at Illinois State University.

Years from now, if Barreca’s dream comes true, two strangers will recognize they are drinking out of the same basic coffee mug - a mug made by Barreca - and start a conversation about how that happened.

Meanwhile, he is satisfied to share his work and increase social interaction.

He is hoping to make a map of where the mugs travel. And how will he know where his mugs go? Each one has a small piece of paper asking the recipient to post a photo of themselves on the Instagram social media site, including the mug and its serial number.

You might call it a “mug shot.”

He hadn’t even finished setting up the display on Wednesday before people were asking about them.

Among them was Lukas Cartmell of Geneva, a junior in organizational leadership at ISU, who was in The Coffee House working on an end-of-semester presentation.

Cartmell asked Barreca, “Can’t I give you any money?”

“No, they’re free,” Barreca replied.

“That’s so cool,” Cartmell said. “Me and my fiance collect coffee mugs.”

But students weren’t the only ones getting in on the free mugs.

Kathy Brooks, a retired Lexington teacher who now lives in Normal, meets friends at The Coffee House every day.

“When we were here this morning, we heard about the cups, so we came back,” she said.

Brooks and her two friends posed for a photo, holding their mugs, so they could follow instructions and post it.

Barreca is originally from the Philadelphia area, where he got his bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Arcadia University.

He calls his project “Build” - a reference not only to building community and building generosity, but also to the process he used to “build” the mugs.

Barreca didn’t keep track of how long it took to make the mugs, simply saying, “I really enjoyed it.”

The mugs are made of brick clay, using an extrusion process - the way building bricks are made - followed by firing and glazing to make them suitable for use as well as dishwasher- and microwave-safe.

He chose to have 200 mugs as part of his public display because that’s roughly equivalent to the number of individual bricks a bricklayer can lay in a day, according to Barreca.

“It’s a way to tie together art and the work day,” said Barreca, who was wearing blue jeans and brown work books as he and a friend stacked the mugs.

Barreca chose The Coffee House for the first public display because it’s a locally-owned business with “a focus on supporting local art,” he said.

His goal is to continue the project, giving away 200 mugs twice a year, even after he is out of school. People can keep the mug for themselves, give it to someone else or pay it forward with a different gift, he said.

“I want to generate generosity through reciprocity,” Barreca said.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/1SQb8f4

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com

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