Amid a cascade of publicity and fanfare, the U.S. Mint released their latest medal issued on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the attack on, and destruction of, New York’s World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. The low relief medal is more coin-like than medal-like.
As desired, it received widespread notice in both the mainstream press and the numismatic press. Response has been supportive, comments have been favorable and sales, I hear, have been brisk. The design, notably, is at a level above what we have been accustomed of seeing on usual U.S. Mint products.
The design, however, is more graphic than glyptic. It was presented to the Mint authorities, and the required vetting committees, as a drawing, as graphic art. Illustrations in the press were of this two-dimensional drawing and its appeal was built on this rather stunning graphic rendering.
But great graphic art does not guarantee a great medal design.
The difference is that third dimension. Or as some say while graphic art is two dimensions, bas-relief, required for coins and medals, is two-and-a-half dimensions. It is not full three dimensions because that third dimension must rise from a flat background.
Obverse design is distinctive, Lady Liberty holding aloft a lamp, what the Mint’s release calls a Lamp of Remembrance. The legend above (in shadowed lettering on the drawing) is strong and succinct. Perhaps even reflective of “Remember the Alamo” – a motto embedded in American history. Could this have been better stated as ALWAYS REMEMBER SEPTEMBER 11TH along with the year dates?
The handsome Lady Liberty is well designed, with perfect facial features. Her crown of laurel leaves was an inspired touch of charm. The hair, however, is too coarse, like spaghetti. I hear a seasoned medallic artist of two generations ago ringing denouncement in my mind. “Its like a bowl of spaghetti dropped on the subject’s head.” A statement he oft repeated to his student sculptors.
The twin panels were a perceptively inspired design motif. The panels are separated by textured surface indicated by clear fields of the strong vertical elements. The italic words in that sentence are the true medallic terms to describe the background of this piece.
The two vertical panels are indicative of the twin beacons of light, installed at the sight where the Twin Towers stood, according to the Mint’s description. Unstated, but in everyone’s mind, the twin panels are of distinctive connotative symbols of the Twin Towers. What’s an exceptional design!
The three buttons on the subject’s sleeve are ideal. That earns a gold star. But the number of pleats in the subjects skirt below the bodice are too numerous. It breaks the Rule of Three that the designer so wisely employed for the number of buttons. More than three of any repetitive element in medallic design becomes uncomfortable to the viewer’s eye. More than five and its boring! Too much of a good thing.
Since viewing a coin or medal is so concentrated, we are looking at an art object less than two inches in diameter, such design must be extensively compressed while being minimized. The design must tell a story in very limited space! Yet the viewer’s eyes seek detail – and this can even be extensive detail – on the device as long as it supports the theme’s structure.
Most coins are the size of a fingernail or two, most medals less than the palm of your hand. Designers cannot afford the luxury of unnecessarily repeated elements. The pleats could have been improved by fewer in number, or perhaps broken up with a tassel hanging down from the belt.
Reverse design is of a stylized eagle superimposed on a field of undulating rays, positive on two-thirds of the background, incuse on one-third. The rays are indicative, symbolic of cascading water from the monument built at the site.
The stylized eagle is devoid of features. The modeler missed the opportunity to add the fine lines of feathers which would have vivified the eagle. This is so easy to do in the clay model, to ultimately be reduced on the die-engraving pantograph. This would have added the realistic detail which enhances and adds charm to a medallic model, it is one of the desirable characteristics of medallic art.
Since the U.S. Mint has mothballed all their Janvier reducing machines and replaced this die preparation method with computer modeling and reduction, we can only expect to see more stylized and silhouetted designs in the future, more symbolic and less realistic. Present engravers doing “clay and plaster” modeling will be replaced by artist-technicians who will model only by “computer engraving.”
While computer engraving is one modern tool in the engraver’s tool box, it should not completely replace long established methods of modeling and die preparation. That fine detail on the eagle’s feathers is but one example where the old method out-performs the new.
The undulating rays indicative of the cascading waters on the reverse breaks another medallic rule and tends to become boring because of the excessive repetition. How much better it would have been to show the actual memorial with its cascading waters. Or even better, perhaps, an aerial view of the site with the memorial and its waterfalls, where the eagle could be flying overhead.
Medallic art has an affinity for detail. This is added at the modeling stage, not often shown in original sketches. This is one great reason why medal designs are modeled oversize and pantographically reduced. All that elaborate detail can be worked into the clay, to ultimately end in the die and struck piece. Medalmakers say “If it’s in the model, it’s in the medal.”
The textured letters in the exergue below misses the opportunity
of a similarity with the lettering on the obverse. This is one of many art techniques of tying together the obverse and reverse. This can be done by using the same typeface or style of letters.
The two-word inscription, HONOR / HOPE is more evocative of a campaign slogan. Because of medals’ inherent longevity – which medal designers should always keep in mind – this might have little meaning to some viewer, say centuries from now. It would have been better as AMERICAN / MEMORIAL or even NEW YORK’S HONORED / MEMORIAL.
Unfortunately this piece is a coin design thrust on a medal format. It was so desired by Mint officials to be struck on a coining press that it falls flat as a medal design. A better design would have been more “medallic.”
Just who are you to criticize this design? you might ask. While I fondly remember a college art appreciation class, I have no formal art training. Mine came from on-the-job experience. I was trained for the decade I was employed at Medallic Art Company under the tutelage of Julius Lauth, art director and vice president.
I was educated in all aspects of medal making, with intensive instruction on how models are prepared with strong emphasis on the art of the medal and to greatly appreciate medallic artists. In fact, it was company policy to appreciate and respect the artists.
But more than that was the education I received from the senior artists themselves. In addition to Julius’ instruction, I learned greatly, somewhat in order, from staff artist Ramon Gordils, freelance artists Robert Weinman, Ralph Menconi, Marcel Jovine, Abram Belskie, Eleanor Platt, Ed Grove, Frank Eliscu. These artists took time to talk with me on frequent visits to the plant, or my visits to their studios.
I learned a great deal from Bob Weinman. I visited his studio many times for long conversations, and served as a chauffeur when the two of us travelled to New York City for meetings and shows. Those intense dialogs were priceless, better than any college training.
Also for over forty years I have handled – “touched and turned over” – hundreds of thousands of medals. This as medal collector, medal cataloger, medal dealer, medal appraiser, medal consultant and medal marketer, in addition to handling medals in a multitude of capacities at Medallic Art Company. That hands-on exposure and those contacts are my art credentials.
While it is easy to be critical, it is more useful to offer solutions. How can the U.S. Mint improve our national coin and medals? I can offer a few comments from the perspective of a commercial medallist, from experience enumerated above.
First, the U.S. Mint’s most egregious policy is to have separate artists design separate sides. The reason for this is, perhaps, expediency. They need to get a coin or medal into production as quickly as possible.
By so doing the Mint foregoes the possibility of creating a unified work of art. Artists have the ability to tie the two sides together – to create a diptych – one work of art of two panels, basically what coins and medals are. There are many art techniques to accomplish this. One mind needs to create both sides.
Instead of creating that unified work of art the U.S. Mint is applying assembly line methods to an art object. The end result is not a work of art, it’s a quickly assembled product. Coins and medals coming from the U.S. Mint in the last several decades is evidence of this misguided policy.
Second, give the artist time enough to think about a design concept; he needs days, sometimes weeks, to mull over in his mind, both conscious and subconscious. He or she needs to ponder how to present the concept of the coin or medal – its theme and symbolism – in the most artistic manner.
Three, recognize a drawing is two dimensions. A coin or medal is a bas-relief that makes it three dimensional. I have seen competent sculptors render a magnificent model from a crude sketch. Often that master sculptor is not a good sketch artist. But choose one artist to both design and model that design.
Four, compensate the artist adequately for the art work he creates.
Remember coins and medals last forever. You are producing miniature works of art that outlast all other forms of art, longer than most creations of mankind, art, architecture or artifacts.