For its first fifty years, Medallic Art Company had no need for a sculptor to be on hand at the firm. The founders, Henri and Felix Weil, were themselves sculptors. All models were prepared by outside sculptors, as clients or commissioned by the firm.
Any touchup work could be done by one of the Weils. Their knowledge of needs of a model for the required process of reduction and cutting a die to be struck into metal was extensive. They knew, perhaps intuitively, that a model could be made into a die. Or what needed to be done to accomplish that magical transaction. They could do it.
With the sale of the firm to Clyde Curlee Trees in 1927, one of the Weils had agreed to be on hand at all times. This policy continued in place until Henri, the oldest of the two, was unable to work and ultimately died in 1949.
Clyde Trees often made the statement that the firm had no stock dies, that all medals were made by new models from outside, commissioned sculptors. But those models occasionally needed tweaking – the preferred sculptural term is “touchup” – irrespective of how competent or reputable the sculptor was who prepared them.
With the death of Henri Weil, Trees realized he needed a sculptor at the plant full time. In 1951 he hired a young talented Puerto Rican, Ramon Gordils, and, under the tutelage of Felix Weil, trained him in the special needs and techniques of medallic modeling.
Ramon Gordils was Medallic Art Company’s first factory artist.
He became so competent that, later on, he was able to pass on those skills to anyone who needed them, even to some top-name sculptor. A problem in plaster casting? Ask Ramon. Height of relief? Ramon knew. Trick of the trade? Ramon would pass it along. In other words, Ramon could backstop every artist, no matter who.
By having such a talented craftsman on hand, any client of Medallic Art could choose any bas-relief sculptor, no matter who, and know for certain their model could end up a competent and outstanding medal. Ramon Gordils would see to that.
Lettering on modals was the weakness of many sculptors. How many times have we heard requests from first-time medal sculptors who desired to obtain form letters. They wanted to buy already formed letters to add to their clay models. Doesn’t happen. You have to form the letters yourself in clay – or carve in reverse in plaster – then let this be the mold for clay letters.
A second problem was hair. Too often hair could not be made fine enough on a clay model. When cast it looked like a bowl of spaghetti dumped on top of the head. Ramon knew all these problems and how to overcome them, with his deft touchup.
Years later, after Medallic Art Company had changed ownership and moved to Danbury, Connecticut, Ramon Gordils had been replaced by, not one, but three sculptors working in the art department. And that was the beginning of the problem of factory artists at Medallic Art.
It is a human trait that several artists working nearby will slowly evolve into mediocrity. They talk to each other, they look over each other’s shoulder. Subconsciously they tend to copy each other.
David Castruccio, one of those three Medallic Art sculptors in Danbury recognized this trait more than anyone else. He once told me a very succinct and perceptive observation:
“Our work became homogenized.”
Irrespective of who did the actual modeling, it could have been done by any of the three.
When the manufacturing plant has one such artist the work is his style alone. With more than one factory artist, a shortcoming develops, however, in that all the work soon looks similar, and the total product has too little diversity.
Such artists tend to produce designs of like style, as they consciously or unconsciously influence each other. They become homogenized – to use Dave’s term – in their creative effort and output (as if they are from the same school of art).
Outside artists, on the other hand, do not have these influences. These artists have a fresh – or different – style, and have the opportunity to produce somewhat more distinctive and creative designs.
I have viewed the work of other medal plants with more than one artist or craftsman charged with the creative design of the factory’s products. The problem of factory artists is universal. It existed in every one of those medal companies!
Engravers at the Philadelphia Mint have faced the same problem since William Barber hired his son Charles as an assistant engraver in 1869. Ultimately a third engraver was hired, George T. Morgan, in 1876. All three were British engravers. Soon all three had a similar style.
This was noticed by Treasury officials, who, in 1890, sent out a call for new engravers, someone who could design new American coins. Nothing became of that call in that decade or the next. By then the National Sculpture Society had been formed, and the organization encouraged their members to respond for new coin designs.
It took a U.S. President to get involved, Theodore Roosevelt, who, with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, introduced the first American coin designed by a qualified American sculptor. This was followed with new coin designs by Victor Brenner, James E. Fraser, Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil, and Anthony diFrancisci – all National Sculpture Society members – who all created new circulating coins trumping the designs of the entrenched engravers at the Mint.
Why were outside sculptor designs so superior to the coin designs offered up by Mint engravers?
They were unburdened by Mint bureaucracy and fellow mint engravers. They were free to create without restrictions and undue peer influences. They did not have the pressures of time and space of working in a controlled environment. They allowed their creative juices to experiment, try something new, to fail and yet move on, to try something else. They had free reign.
Conditions at the Mint’s Engraving Department deteriorated and the problem of factory artists continued intact even into the 21st century. When an active new coin design program – five new reverses honoring each state on the quarter — was introduced in 1999, a large number of coin models were required in quick time.
The Mint attempted to solve this need with the Artist Infusion Program with mixed success. Meanwhile, Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones, resigned and was not replaced.
The engraving room where five engravers work has been described as a “rabbit warren.” Work tables are chuck-a-block next to each other. It is impossible for an engraver NOT to see what his neighbor is working on. It is next to impossible for them NOT to talk to each other. Mediocrity can only flourish in such an atmosphere.
In my previous post on Future Coins I mentioned I had suggestions for managing the Engraving Department at the Mint to overcome some of these recurring problems and place the management of the department and the creation of new coin models under better control. Here are my suggestions:
Create A New Position: “Chief of Engraving Department, United States Mint” which would require this person to have a knowledge of engraving, art, bas-relief sculpture, coining technology, be an art critic, a proof-reader, but most of all, be an art administrator. This executive would be the chief official with responsibility for all the Mint’s coin and medal design, creation of all the models for these and other engraving department duties. Formerly called the Chief Engraver.
This person is more of an administrator than an engraver; an artist more than a sculptor, an art critic more than an art creator. His duties and responsibilities include:
- Maintain an “Invitation List” of American sculptors who can perform coin and medal designs with the capability to render their design into satisfactory bas-relief models. These artists are not graphic artists who prepare 2-dimension designs, but glyptic artists who prepare their designs into relief models.
- He should set the standards for the inclusion of the artists on this invitation list.
- Thus for every new coin or medal required of this department he would mail an invitation to every artist on the invitation list to submit sketches – either pencil or plaster – of obverse and reverse for the new design.
- These invited artists can submit only one pair of designs. They are limited to their one best design concept and sketch. (Staff Engravers are not limited to one, but may submit any reasonable number of proposed designs.)
- He alone would make the decision (with only one or two advisors from the Treasury or Art field, NOT a committee) for the choice of the artist to further develop the design into a satisfactory model.
- He would be responsible and be required to edit all models that are submitted, for accuracy of all elements of the design, both pictorial and historical, plus correct spelling of all lettering. He would be required to challenge the artist to document the accuracy or source of all design elements.
- He would oversee the Senior Staff Engraver to ensure these models are rendered into the most attractive, suitable models while meeting all the requirements of die making and minting technology.
- Conduct monthly inspirational sessions for all Staff Engravers to improve their coin and medal designs and keep them current with new innovations and technology. This is not a review time for these artists’ work, which should be done in private, but a time to inspire and introduce staff engravers to new technology and to encourage design creativity.
- As chief art administrator for both coins and medals he should also have a knowledge and appreciation of medallic art and medallic objects. He should be forward thinking in these creations and encourage their production at the U.S. Mint. He should also have knowledge of patina finishes for these art objects.
Senior Staff Engraver. Put one mint engraver in that engraving room at the Philadelphia Mint. The title for this position would be “Senior Staff Engraver.” This person must be an all-round designer-sculptor. He (or she) must be familiar with all aspects of the Mint’s requirements and all modeling techniques.
This person’s duties would be to “backstop” all other sculptors where their submitted models could be improved, insuring all detail is sharp and crisp. Most modelers are weak in lettering for example; this person must be a specialist and expert in modeled lettering and be able to improve other artist’s lettering.
The Senior Staff Engraver would work closely with the Chief, Engraving Department. All outside models would be brought to the Senior Staff Engraver who would – in agreement with the Chief – edit and make necessary corrections to conform to the technical requirements of the diemaking process at the Mint.
The Senior Staff Engraver would also be required to make the final epoxy pattern required for processing into proper dies and tooling. He would work with the die-engraving pantograph operator to convert these patterns into the sharpest, most attractive and most technically accurate master dies, retaining all the detail and fidelity of the artist’s final pattern.
The Senior Staff Engraver would be permitted to submit new coin and medal designs in the competition for the most artistic of these. He would have a rare insight into what is appropriate because of his handling every one of the successful models that are selected. His workload, and his own volition, would be the only limiting factors to his entering as many of these competitions as he wishes.
Current Engraver Status. Keep the existing engravers on salary, their title would be “Staff Engraver.” But send them home to work in their own studios, without contact with each other or other engraver-sculptors (except for those monthly inspirational sessions conducted by the Chief Engraving Department).
The most creative designs are the effort of one mind of a talented artist working independently from others. Granted this artistic effort is lonely work but this would result in heightened creativity.
These artists need to let their individual creative spirits soar. They should spend more time engaging in and experiencing inspiration, and less time at the drawing board and modeling table. These artists should visit fine art exhibitions and closely examine coin and medal archives and literature illustrating these to determine in their own mind what is good and bad glyptic art (and certainly learn the difference).
The study of classic coin and medal designs of the past should sharpen their knowledge that they can improve their own work. They should keep up with the new technology in the coin and medal field and be able to apply new technologies to their own coin and medal designs and models.
Like factory artists everywhere, when artists work together their creations tend to become similar, their work becomes homogenized and pedestrian. Undoubtedly this is from looking over each other’s shoulder while work is in progress. A human trait, this will continue to occur if all Staff Engravers are required to work next to each other in the present engraving room. What is needed is independent, stimulated, purposeful study away from each other to achieve inspired, innovative coin and medal creations.
Staff engravers must recognize their creative work will be in competition – not only with other staff engravers – but also with outside artists. In effect, the goal is to obtain the most artistic design for every coin and medal. However, staff engravers have somewhat of an advantage in that they posses experience in this field and have a more intimate knowledge of the technical requirements for a new design or model.
Criteria For Hiring Future Staff Engravers. While the technical requirements for a new design or model can be learned, the desire for creating the most attractive glyptic art must come from within an artist. The staff engraver must be able to design a concept he originates and render this into an acceptable bas-relief model.
Thus he must be multi-talented.
By maintaining an invitation list of American sculptors who can create coin and medal designs, the Chief of the Engraving Department will have a pool of prospects for staff engravers. When he feels it is an appropriate time to increase the number of staff engravers, or to replace a departing artist, he can offer a staff position to the best candidate on that invitation list.
This would have an appeal to the artist in that he would not have to relocate to Philadelphia, but can continue to work in his home studio. He would have to travel to Philadelphia, however, for that monthly meeting held by the Chief of the Engraving Department.
Create a new position and hire a Design Researcher. This person (most are female) is a picture and illustration researcher. She should have a working knowledge of picture archives everywhere and know how to dig for an illustration that would be helpful for the design of a new coin. She should work with all sculptors and fill their requests for illustrations. While her office would be in the engraving room at the Philadelphia Mint she would often be found searching archives in person elsewhere.
All Engravers To Prepare New Designs. Staff Engravers – and the Senior Staff Engraver (but NOT the Chief of the Engraving department) – would be encouraged to submit sketches for every new required coin or medal design. Also they could submit as many designs as they wish (in contrast to outside freelance artists who are limited to their one best obverse and reverse design). Because this would place new coin and medal designs on a competitive basis, this would help improve their quality. Only the best deserve to be made into the coins and medals of the United States!
Since the Chief of the Engraving Department is to make the final choice of any coin or medal design, he is not permitted to furnish any of his own designs (but can certainly express his opinion to an artist how to improve their design).
Multiple Function Artists. Two artistic functions are required to create a new coin or medal. One is design, the other is modeling. It is preferable to have both of these functions performed by the same person (and this is a requirement of the Staff Engravers). However, some successful designer-modeler teams have created outstanding medallic art. Such a combination would only be permitted by artists outside the U.S. Mint. For those Staff Engravers employed by the Mint they must perform both art functions.
Postscript. While the above recommendations for the U.S. Mint were written before they set aside their Janvier machines, and decided to make all models henceforth by computer engraving. My opinion is that computer engraving may not yet be proven as the best artistic tool and computer engraved dies add to the mediocrity of coin designs.
I would be more than willing to change my opinion of computer engraving when I can be shown that it can produce artistic designs of great merit by a talented artist.