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Design dilemma

The very features American parks have in common – mountains, streams, meadows – make them difficult to distinguish on coins.

The very features American parks have in common – mountains, streams, meadows – make them difficult to distinguish on coins.


That’s what the Commission of Fine Arts is wrestling with as it recommends designs for the 2011 coins in the “America the Beautiful” quarter series.

“It’s very difficult to capture a realistic landscape at the scale of a quarter because they end up being the same elements,” said Commission Secretary Thomas Luebke. “It becomes extremely repetitive.”

At its Jan. 21 meeting, the CFA reviewed reverse designs for quarters honoring Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Glacier National Park in Montana, Olympic National Park in Washington, Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi and Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.

It recommended designs for only three of the quarters – Gettysburg, Glacier and Olympic – while giving support to a design for Vicksburg and asking for a redesign of the Chickasaw quarter.

Luebke said the CFA doesn’t support what appears to be a tendency to take photographic images and use them as the basis for the coin design. That results in excessive detail and realism, which isn’t appropriate for medalic design, he said.

“It’s not a medium that lends itself well to realistic depiction of landscape,” he said.

Coin design could instead emphasize key elements and possibly an abstraction or stylization of the iconic elements to convey the essence of the subject, he said.

CFA recommended design No. 3 for Gettysburg, Luebke said, because it presented the simplest design. But the flat part of the column lining up with the flat area of the design area presents compositional conflict, he said. Members were not fond of designs No. 2 and 4 because they presented only fragments of monuments, he said.

Glacier’s design No. 3 got the commission’s nod, Luebke said. Members appreciated the use of an animal as symbolism of the park rather than trying to depict an entire landscape on the coin.

Olympic park design No. 1 featuring an elk was favored by the CFA. Luebke said although members found the seascape design interesting, they felt in the end it would be hard to distinguish it from other seascapes.

The CFA didn’t savor any of the designs for Vicksburg, Luebke said, and although it didn’t recommend a design it “supported” design No. 4 depicting the entrance arch.

“The commission was very critical that all of the signs had fragment statues,” Luebke said. It recommended working with design No. 4 to emphasize the entrance arch as an icon of the park without trying to depict a realistic landscape, he said.

Chickasaw park designs were deemed unsatisfactory by the CFA, Luebke said. Some members saw potential in design No. 2, but in general they felt the designs were mediocre vignettes of park landscape that just don’t transfer well to the scale of the coin.

Although the U.S. Mint has adopted a template for the “American the Beautiful” quarters, the CFA is not pleased with the straight bottom in the design area because it is often in conflict with the design composition, Luebke said. And the placement of the state name and E PLURIBUS UNUM presents odd symmetry, he said.

“But members acknowledged that is water under the dam,” Luebke said.

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