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US Mint Artists Challenged to Think Creatively

by Donald Scarinci

The new crop of artists from the United States Mint’s artist infusion program came together at the Mint’s headquarters in Washington DC last week. They participated in a three-day intensive series of workshops that included viewing and studying Krause Publications’ Coin of the Year (COTY) award winners for tips about how to create award-winning coins.

Joseph Mena, the new Chief Engraver and David J. Ryder, the new Mint Director, addressed the infusion artists as a group for the first time. Both expressed the importance of coin design and their commitment to support the artists to be the best they can be.

US Mint's art infusion program gathers

Artists from the United States Mint’s art infusion program participate in workshops and talks about coin design.

In addition to technical workshops, legal briefings and a field trip to the Smithsonian, the artists were treated to a talk by Tom Uram, Chairman of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) who spoke about design elements the Committee tends to favor and disfavor.

“We like to win awards for coin design,” said Uram. “America is the greatest country in the world and our nation’s coinage should reflect that.”

Uram exhibited his complete collection of the Society of Medalists in nine cases set up in the Rotunda of the Mint’s Washington DC office. This was the first time a private collection had been displayed at the United States Mint’s Washington Office. A booklet with pictures and a narrative describing the collection was made available to the each of the Mint artists who attended.

Thomas Luebke from the Commission on Fine arts also spoke about the process of how his committee views the designs the artists submit. According to law, both the CCAC and the Commission on Fine Arts must review and recommend a design before it goes to the Secretary of the treasury for his final selection.

Donald Scarinci, the longest-serving member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee brought a part of his collection of award-winning coin design plated in his book, “The Krause Coin of the Year Award,” published in 2015. He answered questions about the coins as each artist inspected them during the breakout sessions.

Scarinci is one of the 10 nominators of the Krause Coin of the Year Award and the Chairman of the Saltus Award Committee of the American Numismatic Society. He spoke about the coins that win awards and the coins that don’t and used specific examples to try to explain why.

“The Krause Coin of the Year Award is the Academy Awards of world coin design,” he said. “It is the most coveted award in the world.”

“Similarly, the Saltus Award is the numismatic equivalent to the hall of fame for medallic art,” Scarinci said. “Many of the world greatest medallic artists are honored in the roster of 59 winners of that award since James Earl Frazer won the first one in 1919,” he said.

American Liberty Coin

Winner of the 219 Coin of the Year Award for Best Gold Coin, the United States 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary $100 Gold Coin. (Image courtesy of the United States Mint)

Scarinci noted that the United States Mint won the Krause Coin of the Year Award six times since 1982 and came within a vote or two to winning it in 2019 with the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary $100 high relief gold coin designed by Justin Kunz and Chris Costello.

He said that while the American Liberty coin did win the “Best Gold “category, he believed that it was possible that the international panel of over 100 who cast the final votes for COTY probably viewed the coin as American “Political correctness” rather than as a design of liberty in a new and modern way.

“It has to be expected with international awards that not every nuance of nation will be properly understood,” Scarinci Said. “However, the COTY judges are among the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of contemporary coin production and design and they almost always get it right.”

Scarinci spent some time discussing the 2017 Boys Town Commemorative dollar, which won “Most Inspirational.” He observed that this coin was one of the few times that designs were presented to the CCAC and the CFA as a complete idea designed by the same artists. Both the obverse and the reverse of the Boys Town dollar coin were designed by Emily Damstra.

Boys Town Centennial Coin by the US Mint

The United States Mint won the 2019 COTY award for Most Inspirational Coin with their 2017 issue Boys Town Centennial Commemorative coin. (Image courtesy of the United States Mint)

“Emily’s Boys Town coin illustrates two design elements that make it a success,” Said Scarinci. “First, it uses both sides of the coin to tell a story—it is as Leonda Finke used to say, four-dimensional as only coins and medals can be. It has the element of time. Second, this coin uses negative space in a very effective way, particularly on the obverse,” Scarinci said.

Describing the coin further, Scarinci said, “The use of negative space conveys this solitary, alone, meditative feeling. Whether the girl is thinking, whether she is sad, whether she is just isolated from others for whatever reason, the viewer has a reason to identify with the girl. The moment in time is captured and it is a moment that we can all share in our lives with this image.”

Scarinci continued, “The reverse features a familiar tree. There is life and happiness on the reverse. The hand holding is familiar and comforting. It is community. It is belonging and family and togetherness. Perhaps what is thought about or wished for on the obverse is realized on the reverse. Perhaps the reverse is the image in a dream. Perhaps the reverse is a wish that is unfulfilled.

Scarinci called the coin a successful work of art. “The viewer takes their conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings to the coin. The coin seems to emit feeling. It seems to provoke thoughts. It is as if the coin lives and speaks,” Scarinci said.

In addition to the workshops and talks about coin design, the Mint artists participated in talks about manufacturing issues and restrictions. There was some discussion about future Mint projects and what the artists could expect in the next year.

One of the highlights of the symposium was a field trip to the Smithsonian’s numismatic collection. Ellen Feingold, Curator, led tours of the collection and treated the artists to a private showing of some rarities in the museum’s vault.

Special collection viewing

Artists were treated to viewings of special collections during the three-day intensive.