For most people, coins are just things that jingle in one’s pocket, accumulate in jars or feed parking meters. They are occasionally counted after a purchase but rarely the subject of close examination. Try telling that to Joel Iskowitz, an artist at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia since 2006, who calls coins “an ambassador to the rest of the world. They can be eloquent and iconic in telling a story” of American and world history. They “tell” that history through the front and back designs, and it is fine artists that the Mint often looks to hire in order to develop the images used on both sides of American coins and medallions.
Since 2003, the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program has solicited applications from fine artists across the country, not just portraitists or technicians who can engrave a presidential portrait. They don’t need engravers – they already have those on staff – or even require the artist know something about relief sculpture. Many of the artists who have participated in the Artistic Infusion Program are sculptors who have demonstrated good design and representational art skills. More important to the Mint is that a participating artist “has a professional portfolio that includes published or publicly displayed art” and “derives a portion of his or her individual earned income from his or her art or areas related to his or her art,” according to its published eligibility requirements. Ed Moy, the now-retired director of the U.S. Mint, noted that the U.S. Mint needs “fresh ideas and visual images to challenge us, push out our boundaries, spark a new Renaissance and take us to the next level. This is a public art that everyone can enjoy,” and it is a public art that comes to most people rather than requiring people to come to it.
Periodically, the Mint puts out a public call for artists to apply for the Artistic Infusion Program, the most recent was in January of 2014, submitting a resume, personal statement and between five and 10 samples of their work. Twenty-five of the applicants are then asked to submit a demonstration design for an actual Mint coin or medallion, for which they are paid $1,500. The application forms include two 8½” diameter circles, representing coins, in which to create drawings. For the 2010 applicants, the commemorative subject of the assigned coins was the founding of the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607; the first drawing needed include a Native American, African and European figure, as well as the inscriptions “Jamestown” and “In God We Trust,” while the second was a scenic depiction of the Jamestown settlement and surrounding areas that included structures, landscapes and seascapes.
Completed applications are graded on a numerical basis by a committee composed of engravers, sales and marketing staff and a lawyer who work for the U.S. Mint. “We look at composition and content, how the elements of text and images work together, the style, the planes, depths and dimensions,” said John Mercanti, the Mint’s recently retired chief engraver. In effect, the committee looks to see if an image, when reduced to six percent of its drawn size, looks good and has all the required elements. Selected artists are given a one-year contract as associate designers; if their contract is renewed, they may be upgraded to master designers. The Mint seeks to make the process of choosing images for new coins and medals competitive, so all artists in the program may prepare designs and are paid – $2,000 for those in the first two years, $2,500 for artists in the program between three and five years and $3,000 for those with six or more years of experience – regardless of whether or not their designs are used. In most instances, artists are given between four and six weeks to develop and submit their designs. Those artists whose images are selected receive a $5,000 bonus. Iskowitz stated that since he began working for the Mint “40 or so coins and medals have my images on them” – the minted piece will include the artist’s initials in the corner – although he has offered far more designs than that. “I’ve probably earned between $20,000 and $40,000 a year since I started,” he said.
Most assignments are for just one side of a coin – the head (obverse) or tail (reverse) – although some artists in the Mint’s program have had their designs selected for both sides of a coin, doubling their payments.
Part of the reason that the U.S. Mint has looked for more artists is simply the fact that there are more coins and medals being produced. In the past, the government relied on the same set of circulating coins and just changed the dates from one year to the next. However, these days there are between 90 and 120 coins in various stages of the process of being designed and minted at any one time. Some of these are coins in general circulation, whose designs are updated or added, such as the 50 state quarters. Many of the others are commemorative coins or others honoring a certain group or individual. There are, for instance, coins honoring the Boy Scouts of America, Louis Braille, disabled veterans, First Ladies, the American bald eagles, all the U.S. presidents, national parks, the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the Marine Corps, Black Revolutionary War patriots, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, the American buffalo and numerous other themes. The U.S. Congress, which has the constitutional authority to regulate the nation’s currency, passes a law once or twice a year to create a new or revised coin (or series of coins), setting the process in motion.
Iskowitz claimed that much of his time is spent not on a design itself but on researching the subject, which may involve travel, visits to museums and libraries, and speaking with people knowledgeable in the subject of the design. For a Mark Twain commemorative medal, for instance, “I went to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut and spoke with several of the guides.” He added that the “great challenge” of working for the Mint is accumulating and then reducing a great deal of information into a distilled image.”
When Thomas S. Cleveland, a watercolor artist who operates his own art school teacher in Cypress, Texas and had been part of the Artistic Infusion Program for a number of years beginning in 2004, was given the assignment of designing a coin to honor Anna Harrison (wife of the ninth U.S. President, William Henry Harrison) as part of the First Ladies series, the Mint enabled him to view a White House portrait of her. “I had to extrapolate from that portrait what she looked like younger,” he said. “I used a student at my school as a model, posing her in a 19th century costume reading to other students. I read her history and found that her passion in life was teaching, so my design showed her reading to several children, one of whom was a Native American.” That design was selected by the Mint and the Treasury Secretary, “but I still had to make some revisions, because the costume I used was about 30 years in the future from when she was First Lady.” The Mint arranged for Cleveland to meet with a costume curator at the Smithsonian Institution who showed the artist more appropriate period clothing “and sent me some samples.”
It can be frustrating for those in the Artistic Infusion Program to include everything they believe is significant into an image that will be at its largest (for the Congressional Medal of Honor) three inches in diameter, as well as for those sculptor-engravers who take the selected designs and try to make it into a relief image on a piece of metal. “Artists have to be cognizant of the next step,” said Jim Licaretz, a sculptor who has worked as an engraver at the U.S. Mint since 2006. “Can you cut it with our machines? The cutters have certain sizes, and it may be impossible to machine certain details. You need minimal height.”
The reasons that an associate designer’s contract may not be renewed has less to do with the number of designs presented or accepted in a given year and more to do with whether or not the artist understands what works well on a small coin and what the engravers need in order to perform their work. “You’ve got to be on time, Iskowitz said, “and on the money, pardon the expression.”
Engraving metal to be used for coins and medallions is an ancient profession, although it has been updated by digital three-dimensional modeling and scanning programs, and knowing how to work with these new tools has become part of the job requirement. “Understanding how to do the digital was more of a learning curve for me,” said Phebe Hemphill, who worked as a doll- and figurine maker at Franklin Mint before joining the U.S. Mint in 2006.
Two separate committees – the Coinage Advisory Committee, which was set up at the same time as the Artistic Infusion Program to advise the Treasury Secretary on themes and designs of U.S. coins, and the Commission of Fine Arts, which was established by Congress in 1910 to advise government bodies on matters of design and aesthetics – evaluate the designs that the artists have submitted, making their recommendations to the director of the Mint. The two committees may arrive at the same decisions, but there often is a bit of can-you-add-this, can-you-enlarge-that, which adds to the workload. The director then takes the designs, the respective recommendations and his own recommendation to the Treasury Secretary for final approval. So far, the two Obama Administration Treasury Secretaries, Timothy Geithner and Jack Lew, have gone along with all of recommendations; the previous Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, disagreed once, choosing a different design for one of the Lincoln pennies in a bicentennial series.
By Daniel Grant