With each coin they design, the sculptors at the U.S. Mint are creating history.
And they know that. And respect it. And relish in the honor they say has been placed in their hands.
“Civilizations may fail, but they always find their coins,” said John Mercanti, chief engraver at the U.S. Mint.
“You’re creating a legacy,” said sculptor Joe Menna. “It’s history. It’s awesome.”
A visit to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia June 22 found the sculptors fine-tuning designs and sculptures for coins and medals and reflecting on the historical signficance of their work.
“It’s an honor to be tasked with what we do,” Mercanti said, seated at a conference room table adjacent to the sculptors’ work area.
As sculptors walked by, he beckoned them into the room. Each sculptor/artist/engraver elicited high praise from Mercanti.
“All our artists are classically trained,” Mercanti said, who has done his share of dissections to better understand the physical form. Two of the sculptors have studied in Russia. They all know physical anatomy.
“We look for specific people,” Mercanti said of the sculptors the Mint hires.
Menna, for example, was a lead sculptor for DC Comics before coming to the Mint. But trained in the classics, he has found his fit at the Mint, where prima donnas are not allowed.
“I tell everyone when I hire them, leave your ego at the door,” Mercanti said.
Good thing, because lately the artistic quality of designs prepared by the sculptors has been the target of criticism. Both the Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coin Advisory Committee have rejected coin designs, focusing their criticism, however, on the process that led to the development of the designs, rather than the sculptors who created them.
“Criticism – you get used to it,” Mercanti said. “This is the nature of what we do.”
The design process begins with Congress authorizing the creation of the coin, often at the behest of a sponsoring committee that provides a narrative of what the design is to represent.
And although the CCAC and CFA rejected designs for a U.S. Army commemorative a few weeks ago, the Army sponsoring committee thought they were great, Mercanti said, and that committee gets a voice in what the coin will look like.
He recalled creating the 1995 Olympic Bicyclists commemorative. The sponsoring committee told him what to put on the coin, “down to what the bike, gloves and shoes should look like,” Mercanti said.
“They are our customers, and we give them what they want,” he said.
The sculptors present their proposed designs to a peer review involving the entire staff, including production. Modifications to the design may be suggested.
Once the design is completed, it goes to the sponsoring committee and then to the CFA and CCAC, he said.
“We work through the system,” he said. “We do what we can to get a design they are happy with.”
It is a team environment, he said.
And there are a lot of players on the team.
“It’s the exact same system if you’re designing a public monument,” Mercanti said. “You get used to it.”
And it’s better than artists had it during the Renaissance, Menna said.
“Artists then could have been thrown in the river,” Menna joked.
But he immediately turned serious.
“There is no better environment to work in,” Menna said. “We have the opportunity to make more money in the private sector, but here we have the opportunity to make history.”