LISTED BELOW are traits of artists who have made excellent medalists in the past. I have learned of these from my contact with live artists over the years and the biographies I have prepared for the medallic artists documented in my Databank of American Artists.
While each artist is different, each his own individual, they seemed to share common traits. All seemed to have an appreciation for beauty, and a compelling desire to create, but other similar characteristics became evident when I recorded so many biographical details of these artists. Those listed here are in no particular order, just as the trait came to mind.
Your father was a sculptor.
Many medalists are second generation sculptors. Ralph Menconi and Joseph DiLorenzo are two whose father encouraged their choice of career. This was not the case in the Weinman household. When Robert Weinman made small sculptures as a youth, his father, Adolph Weinman, broke them up commenting, “There will only be one sculptor in this family.” Despite that, both Robert and his brother Howard were sculptors and competent medalists.
You were born or trained in France or Italy.
Artists with some connection to either of these two countries seem to have an appreciation and an ability for medallic art more so than others. This includes the founders of our company, the Weil Brothers, who were French. Victor Brenner traveled to Paris twice to be trained by the masters there to become one of America’s great medalists. In a comment once in a speech on Italian-born Marcel Jovine, I stated “there must be something in the drinking water in Italy to produce such outstanding medallic artists.” It still holds true.
You worked for St. Gaudens in his studio.
For sculptors active around the turn of the 20th century, if you served in St. Gaudens studio you observed great art first hand, in addition to helping prepare it. Every one of St. Gaudens’ sculpture assistants went on to make medals of exceptional quality. By extension, this could imply to be trained by the best sculptor who will accept you as an apprentice will increase your chance of success.
You are a seasoned artist.
Some artists come to medallic art late in life. I would hope the reason would be a desire for the longevity of their medals – destined to outlast every other art form, including their monumental and architectural works. But it is probably due to experiences gained over the years with a view of mankind’s foibles from a broader perspective. All your life experiences influence your art.
You teach sculpture at the college level.
A professorship in sculpture is ideal for an active medallist. It levels out your income and provides time to create on your own time in your own studio. Here’s a list that comes to mind: Albert d’Andrea, Richard Duhme, Frank Eliscu, Jamie Franki, Angela Gregopry, R. Tait McKenzie, Elliot Offner, Merlin Szosz, Elden Teft, George Tsutakawa and Bud Wertheim. I personally knew all except McKenzie (although I have written extensively about this artist), Teft and Tsutakawa.
You love calligraphy.
Don Everhart and Sherl Joseph Winter are two medalists who have studied calligraphy with the intent of improving their letter forms on their medallic models. The shapes, serifs and shading of letter forms all influence their style which should be harmonious with the theme of the medal, a subtle but important feature.
You are a master with clay and plaster.
This is a requirement for every artist preparing oversize models for medals to be reduced while cutting the die for striking. Some artists are more proficient modeling but this is basic for any sculptural activity that it should be a technique of second nature to every artist who calls himself a sculptor.
You like the classics in literature, art and medallic art.
You like to study the best of past generations. A classic is a work that stands the test of time, it is admired by generations, no matter what the current fad is. This holds true for literature, every form of art including medallic art. It is interesting to view the library in the studio of great sculptors. I remember viewing the studio of Walker Hancock in Gloucester Massachusetts. It included great literature as well as the expected works on great art.
You are a versatile sculptor, preparing monumental works as well as miniature medallic art.
I can mention extremes here. The sculptor who created Mount Rushmore, and both sculptors in charge of Stone Mountain in Georgia – Guzton Borglum and that same Walker Hancock who replaced him to finish the job – both prepared medallic models as well as heroic portraits, mountain-size sculptures. Famed sculptor Malvina Hoffman prepared the frieze on the facade of a building with as much ease as modeling a medal. Scale is relative. A professional sculptor can create both.
Your hobby is symbolism, you can create a symbol for any idea, any concept.
No one sculptor stands out in my mind for symbols, since this trait is so universal among all artists. Good medalists are expected to create good symbols in their medallic designs. The symbolic image must be understood by any knowledgeable person, then presented in an attractive way. Add a touch of charm and that is a winning design. Good medalists know how to employ useful, attractive symbols in their creations.
You’re a “clipper,” you compile a clipping file of images you could possibly render into relief works of art.
Artists don’t talk much about their clipping files but they are so important they have been mentioned in wills, bequeathed much like their tools to past them off to a favorite apprentice or family member. Great artists use these files to get ideas, inspiration and insight how to prepare a new work.
You are so well-versed in medallic technologies you could teach it or write a book on the subject.
Technique is mastering the tasks required for the job at hand. I have found good medalists can view a new medal and know intuitively how it was modeled. How did the artist treat the eyeball, or the shape of an ear, or the multi strands of hair so it doesn’t look like a bowl of spaghetti dumped on top of the head. These design problems are solved by techniques, some of which are unique to medallic art.
You are a salesman – you can sell your own work.
You cannot be hesitant about seeking plush commissions. You must seek a constant flow of commissions in line with your ability to create them. Talent rises to the top and becomes known. If you receive more commissions than you can handle, you hire assistants, like St. Gaudens, or Andy Warhol.
You don’t mind publicity about you or your work.
Nineteenth century sculptor Byron M. Pickett so overlooked this aspect of his work he remained virtually unknown. Today, 125 years later, medal researchers, art historians and his descendants find it a major chore to piece together his life’s work. (I wrote about him in August 6, 2012.) He prepared a life-size statue of Samuel F.B. Morse in New York City’s Central Park and a stunning relief portrait of Lincoln that was the model for a postal card issued by the U.S. Post Office (and made into a medal by Medallic Art Co in 1963). His reticence for publicity was so severe he remained unknown for nearly a century. He was in contrast to sculptor Warner Williams of Indiana who was a virtual publicity hound.
You travel in social circles of top decision makers.
The most notable sculptor I know who carried this trait to extreme was Felix de Weldon. He moved to Washington DC, made the effort to meet and socialize with decision makers in the nation’s capitol. The effort won for him several monument commissions, including Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima. He also was just as comfortable on Long Island’s gold coast as Martha’s Vineyard. He met the people who could afford his work.
You dream in relief, often with captions to the images.
I have asked this question every time I interview an artist. The answer is always yes. I follow it up “Do you dream in color?” It seems painters do, sculptors don’t. Marcel Jovine told me dreaming is the source of inspiration. The artist has a conscious perception of his work at hand, this filters into his subconscious where his mind is constantly analyzing the problem, even in his sleep. A solution occasionally surfaces in a dream. Jovine called this true inspiration.
What makes a Great Medallist?
Design. While the traits previously mentioned are common to most sculptor-medallists, to rise above other artists in the field, to become a really great medallist, an artist must become a master of design. The major characteristic of his work – of any motif, media or magnitude – is its design.
A great medallist is expected to be proficient in techniques, symbolism and creating images. How he puts it all together in his design is what the public views, frozen in time and preserved in immutable metal. Design is pre-eminent.