CoinWeek Podcast #42: Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz on the State of Modern Coins
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Joel Iskowitz is a prolific designer of U.S. coins, having served in the U.S. Mint's Artistic Infusion Program since 2003.
In this special edition of the CoinWeek Podcast, we talk with Joel about modern coin design, the importance of representation in a culturally climate that is much more diverse than in years past, and ask him how the designs of famous artists Augustus Saint Gaudens and Adolph Weinman would fare if submitted for review today.
The following is a transcript of Charles' conversation with Mr. Iskowitz:
Charles Morgan: Oh hi there Joel, how are you doing today?
Joel Iskowitz: I’m fine Charles, and yourself?
CM: I’m doing well, I’d like to thank you for dropping by on the CoinWeek Podcast.
JI: It’s really my pleasure and an honor to be asked to participate in the forum.
CM: So, I hear tell that you wanted to ask me the first question before we really get started?
JI: This is true, this is true. You know the name Charles Morgan rings a bell to those of us who pay attention to coinage and art, so I guess I’ll reverse the tables and ask you if you any relation to the great George T. Morgan of the famed silver dollar.
CM: Well, um, the short and the long answer to that question is “no”. Morgan is a very fortunate numismatic name. In fact my co-writer and lifelong friend, Hubert Walker... "Walker" is a nickname for the Walking Liberty half dollar... is also a numismatic name, and when we write our articles as Morgan and Walker, a lot of people think these are pen names that we use to sort of sound cool, but these are actually our names.
JI: It’s great whenever I see either of your bylines, all that resonance is part of it. So it’s nice to have all that luster associated with your byline, that’s for sure.
CM: So, Joel. Describe for CoinWeek’s listeners what your role is in the design process of coins at the U.S. Mint.
JI: Um, ok. I wonder how much time we have, but I’m going to try to be brief and as clear as possible, Charles.
Basically, I’m part of the team, which is named the Artistic Infusion Program. I’m very proud and happy to be a participant in that program, which actually began in 2003 under Director Henrietta Holsman Fore, who had great vision to kind of take a page out of Teddy Roosevelt’s desires to have American coinage invigorated by inviting outside artists, artist citizens to submit designs.
So, that program that began in 2003 - I was accepted into it in 2005. And happily here, all these years later in 2016, I still am invited to submit designs for consideration. What I do is I submit two-dimensional black and white line art along with the other members of the artistic infusion program and also the sculptor engravers in Philadelphia at the United States Mint, who also submit two dimensional black and white line art drawings for consideration.
CM: From there, designs are scrutinized and ultimately, finalists are selected and submitted to two separate committees, the Commission of Fine Arts, the CFA, and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, where the designs are again reviewed and ultimately recommendations are made and sent to the Secretary of the Treasury. As an artist, what is going through that process like?
JI: That’s a good question. It’s an elaborate process, because even before the designs go to the two review boards, that being the Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory – before it ever reaches that level – all of the designs that are submitted undergo a pretty rigorous vetting process, from many standpoints: aesthetically, thematically, historically, they are vetted for coinability and a lot of revisions are done before they even reach the national review boards.
To answer more specifically, it’s a rigorous process for the artist because there is a tremendous amount of time invested in preparing any given design for any given program. An awful lot of time is spent simply on research as far as I’m concerned, before I even lift up a pencil. And then once that happens, I may go through a number of revisions on my own before I submit and after that, as I say, before the time comes to present them to the national review boards, there is often a series of revisions that is needed as well. So it’s very time consuming and you have to be very, very motivated and dedicated to the work, which I think a lot of us truly are.
CM: And how would you characterize the level of competition amongst the designers? Are we at a period of time where there’s just a pool of tremendously talented artists that your work has to be measured up against.
JI: Absolutely! I’d say that incrementally over the years since the beginning of the program in the early 2000s, as I say, 2003-2004-2005 when I entered, there have been a number of artists, who have come through the program only a very few have stayed since those years and as time went on the roster and quality of artists submitting designs has continually improved. So today, in 2016, I think that there’s really an excellent, excellent... probably the best group of Artistic Infusion artists on board. So yes, the competition has enhanced and tightened.
But it’s a collegial... I always like to think of it is a collegial and friendly competition... although it’s sharp. And of course, the nature of the beast is that only one design for a given obverse or reverse is the one that winds up being selected, so it’s a rarity when that happens but its always thrilling.
CM: Well let’s talk a little bit about coins. Coins are obviously unique forms of public art: there’s a monetary element to it, there’s the idea that people are actually using it in commerce. That it sort of has an intrinsic value and a tradition that is different than medals or tokens, or other similar types of objects. What in your mind makes coins different than medallions or tokens, or items of that nature?
JI: That’s a very astute distinction. My mind is reeling with possible responses to that. The first thing that comes to mind off of the bat, Charles, just parenthetically before I thought about the monetary value on a coin, there’s one more element, because I have some experience with it, pieces of miniature artwork, I call them miniature epic artwork also appear on postage. I’ve done a number of stamp designs over the years. So that’s another element where art actually has associated with it a standard value ascribed by, I don’t know, the treasury of any given nation. So yes, it’s very distinct in that it has a monetary value for currency, in a world of exchange attached to it, and then complicating the issue sometimes is the bullion that’s used in any given species and all of the historical aspects that make certain coins that are circulating coins collectible and much more valuable than their face value.
But it brings another much more abstract notion to my mind when you mention that, and that is the subjective arena of attaching value to art. So speaking as an artist, it has always been a very varied scenario. What is art worth in terms of money? What is art worth in terms of its value to a culture? And those are two topics that I’m sure that we could probably fill a half hour just speaking about in and of themselves.
CM: You know, I’m no art critic, and I consider myself hardly qualified to go too far down this hole... and it's not really a criticism. I am not making any particular judgment on the art itself, but it seems to me that maybe since the early 1980s that there’s been a shift in the iconography and maybe even the seriousness that this country – and this is not solely this country because I think it’s pretty much every country that produces coins, has when it comes to the motifs and the topics that are approved for coin designs. If you look at the circulating coinage of our country, after the Mint was through with the Saint-Gaudens period of beautified coin designs, we embraced a modern period with the Washington quarter, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, and these types of coins. And these designs stuck around with us with a specific and particular meaning.
It's not hard to understand the meaning behind Benjamin Franklin, or Abraham Lincoln, or Thomas Jefferson. And these iconic images stuck with us year after year, in a confident display of why America was great and these coins travelled around the world.
And I’d say starting with the modern commemorative coin series and continuing to the State Quarters program and American Beautiful coin program and others, it seems that our coin designs have become a little bit more self conscious in a way---that we no longer seem to be sticking with designs year after year. And the multitude of designs, I think, in some respects diminishes the object.
Do you see where I’m coming from with this line of thinking?
JI: Yeah, I think I hear you loud and understand you quite clearly. And it makes me think that, if nothing else, art is reflective of culture. Of society. Of civilization. Sometimes taste, sometimes values. I think actually always it reflects it for better and for worse. And I guess that a case could be made in general, that with the advent of the way in which we digest and exchange information in the digital age... in so many arenas... we could look at, what I guess a lot of us would look at as a sense of loss of certain tried and true tenants of civilization, of our national values sometimes, in the rush for information and the speed in which it is delivered, our attention span has been reduced to the proverbial three-and-a-half seconds it seems ... and sometimes a lot of the lineage and the tradition that are classic and by classic I mean not any given school of art or any historical period, in my estimation of view, classic means timeless... meaning that it could be appreciated in any age by anyone because certain truths are evident and beauty is evident. I don’t think those are affected by the passage of time. But what is affected by the passage of time is tastes and stylistic preferences. And sometimes, and I’m being very general now but I hope its addressing your question, Charles, sometimes I really feel that stylistic preferences or particular tastes that prevail in any given age can easily become a kind of limited manifesto and wind up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, proverbially speaking. Meaning some of these values that you were indicating might get lost in this modern age is lamentable. I think sometimes we do very well to realize that there is a continuity, that there is a lineage, that there is conversation over time that goes back to the ancients and goes through our history into our present and actually into our future. And I think we help all the arts and all the communications that human beings enter into.
For instance you mention, not only in the United States. I take a look at some of the issues of money to get more specific about coinage. I look at – just artistically – I look at some of the interpretations from the Monnaie de Paris of Marianne – what would be their national symbol and icon of the spirit of France. Just the way Liberty is for us and Columbia was in the past, or Britannia was for Britain and I see the modern interpretations lacking in their muscular attempt to seem modern, lacking a certain kind of gravitas, a certain kind of connection to the values that you were speaking of and they wind up looking, between you and me and whoever might listen to this podcast, a lot of the modern coinage looks like it's missing a dimension – the dimension of connectivity to these values and these truths and the... how can I say it?... quality that is part of classical art.
CM: So how do you think if Saint-Gaudens, Weinman and Fraser was transplanted into today’s industry? How do you think their art would be affected by contemporary demands on artists as far it comes to how coins are now produced?
JI: Wow, these are great questions and they provoke a lot of thought. On one level, if what I said, what I tried to say is accurate, the great classic beauties that they created, Striding Liberty of Saint-Gaudens, "Walker", as we say, Walking Liberty by Weinman, etc., etc., they would and they still do resonate today. They still are alive today. I decry. I get very upset to hear “Oh, that’s been done” and “Those guys are dead, get over it.” This is a brutal approach, it truncates that lineage. They are not dead. They are alive and they always will be alive because they created great masterpieces of great dignity and great beauty that speaks to everybody – the sophisticated collector as well as the very casual exchanger of a coin. So, I feel that they would, like you and myself, be a little aghast at some of the imagery that’s on coins today – and that’s across the board, that’s universally. And I also think that their work would always be valid and probably would be producible, as we’ve seen with the high-relief of Saint-Gaudens. We now see the good part of technology is that it not only has made certain things possible, like the high relief coins- which were always problematic, even back in Saint-Gaudens’ day.
CM: Well, let’s talk about technology for a minute. How does technology help you in the process of designing coins?
JI: Well, I use technology only as a necessary tool, because that is the way the world is today. For instance, all of the designs... back in the early days in the artistic infusion program, we used to actually send in our original pencil drawings, and we’d send them by FedEx. You know, just actual physical things. Somewhere in the mint are a lot of, in the vaults, a lot of pencil drawings.
But these days, I guess, probably since maybe 2006 or 07, maybe even earlier than that - all the submissions are digital. So even our two dimensional pencil drawings – in my case they are pencil, some people use other techniques – are translated into digital programs like Photoshop or InDesign or a combination thereof and submitted as high-resolution jpegs. So that by nature, just that alone, has affected the way in which I work. I take my drawings, I scan them in, I make many, many states, I print them out and draw into them again... because you are talking to an old etcher engraver. Engraver not in the since of bas relief sculptor but an engraver who has engraved into copper and zinc and engraved into etchings. So just like with intaglio work, I keep on making many states and refine my drawings. So the technology has helped me of course, I use my printer, basically as an etching press in a sense. So I print out drawings and refine them and scan them in again. So it's helped me, and it also helps me compositionally because when I have them in the computer and I’m looking at the compositions - instead of cutting out pieces of paper and moving things – you can do that digitally much more easily. So, compositionally, it’s very helpful in terms of moving elements and devices around in the field to create a good composition that works in a 360 degree round field.
CM: Do you think this technology in some respects lends to the over design or the over rendering of an idea. It seems, speaking as a total amateur, when I look at the design candidates- the finalists that make it the CFA or the CCAC, I see a lot of designs that are utterly beautiful but they look like drawings and I find it hard to imagine that all the shading and intricate detail would end up on a coin as struck... and then I think about how Weinman’s design for the Walking Liberty half dollar or for Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin that there is a lot of “hide and seek” going on. There’s an allusion to detail that isn’t there, that because of the change of the relief that your eye imagines something that isn’t fully realized. And sometimes on these modern sketches I see a load of detail that you know, on a coin that is one color you are not going to have all these shadows and things like this.
JI: Well, you might be speaking to one that might be very guilty of that on some levels. Another thought I have, I’ve looked at drawings of Weinman and Saint-G. and people like Victor David Brenner. And what you’re looking at, or what I’m looking at, it’s clear to me that they are sculptor’s drawings. And sculptor’s drawings, since they are already thinking in three-dimensional bas relief in various levels of height from the field. They are really making direct notes to themselves, where they don’t need to translate any further--they know exactly what they are going to be sculpting. So they have a very free and bold, and as you say “hide and seek, lost and found” kind of look to them, as opposed to a designer such as myself. What we have to do is to create a road map for a sculptor in terms of indicating levels of relief through shading, or some other way in which to indicate that – hatching or shading – and to give a sculptor another hand or eye, a good guide.
As far as details, that’s an interesting and intricate question. Because my view of it, to put it simply, as I said before... sometimes the urge, that muscular, strained urge to be modern, mandates in excess sometimes the need to follow certain clichés, such as "less is more". Sometimes less is more and sometimes less is simply less. Sometimes more is more, but if it’s done properly, you can put a lot of detail, you can put a lot of refinement in a simple structure.
And I think sometimes there’s a mistake, when people see a very elaborate amount of care taken in rendering, to immediately reject it as too busy or too complicated, where if the trained eye can look at a very elaborate and very refined drawing and see that there is a simple silhouette or a simple island that would read very clearly on a coin. So it’s a very subjective thing in the end. But um, I hope I’m answering some of your concerns on that question. I think they are very valid concerns.
CM: Well let’s talk about the relationship between the designer and engraver, as through your program you wouldn’t be involved in rendering the design in relief- as that would be carried out by an engraver in Philadelphia. Do you have ongoing correspondence or communication with the engraver during this part of the process?
JI: There used to be a little bit more communication back in the days when John Mercanti was the chief of tool and die manufacturing and later became the 12th Chief Engraver. He acted very much, very pro-actively, as an art director. I used to call "John the Eagle Eye of Philly”. Because he had such an astute eye. I remember once I had done a portrait of Lincoln and John said, “It was just perfect, but Joel, if you would rotate it five degrees to the right, I think it would be improved.” And I thought to myself, five degrees... would that make a difference? And I, of course, listened to John. I rotated it five degrees and, lo and behold, it read a lot better. I think that was the day I gave John that handle, that nickname, “the eagle eye of Philly.” He had a great eye.
These days there is much more communication that gets funneled through headquarters and the design specialists interpret language from the lead sculptor Don Everhart and such. But after a design is actually selected and there is serious consideration for how it is going to be sculpted and minted, very often the individual sculptor engravers such as Phebe Hemphill or Joseph Menna or others, will send me an email or reach out to me directly and say, “Gee, can you help me out with a reference on that fold, or can you help me with specifying what you meant by that area.” And then I’ll come through with either some reference that I used or a detailed drawing of that area to help them perform the sculpt.
CM: So once you’ve gone through the process of rendering your design, submitting it, getting it through the design and revision process, and it’s finally made into a real practical object. What’s your reaction to seeing it?
JI: By in large, you know its funny because I have always um, my career has mostly been as an artist although I have done many, many paintings in large scale and art that hangs on walls... and only gets reproduced as a secondary item. I’ve done a lot of work for reproduction and in the beginning when I first saw my work reproduced, it’s a generation away from an original, so there’s always a little bit of a surprise value, but over the course of the year I’ve learned to appreciate what my work looks like reproduced. Now, reproducing color work or even black and white work on a vehicle for print is one thing, but having a sculptor or engraver interpret a two-dimensional design is another thing, because it does become something else. And not only does the bas relief become something else, but there’s a third generation when metals are put under pressure in the die making process. There’s a third-generation process, and the final coin or medal is yet another level of separation from your original, but by and large, I’ve gained a tremendous appreciation for the skill, both artistically and technically, to bring my designs to life, basically. I like to say to new heights. I like to show, when I give a lecture, I like to show my drawing alongside the finished product, whether it’s a medal or a coin, so people can appreciate that it can’t be exactly the same. One is a design and one is a three dimensional object in reality.
But by and large, the most recent piece that I had designed that was turned into minted coin, I’m honored to say that the Theodore Roosevelt America the Beautiful National Parks Quarter has just recently been offered to the public. And I think Phebe Hemphill and the folks in the technical end of things in Philadelphia did an amazing job. That was a very, very complex design but I think it reads simply - I think it was successful from that standpoint, to address your earlier question, there is a lot of detail in there, in the drawing and in the sculpt, but I think it reads simply and it reads clearly. There are good negative areas, etc. etc., for the field and polish.
So I guess my simple answer is that I’m edified. I really delighted and thrilled when I see the final products.
CM: So you bring up the Theodore Roosevelt America the Beautiful Quarter, that coin has just recently launched. Describe the design itself and what motivated your approach to it and what you think it really gets right about that park and the personality of Theodore Roosevelt.
JI: That one in particular? That one was pretty straightforward. The Badlands themselves were compelling with the outcroppings and the bend of the river and the whole story. Finding out certain things in your research, that this larger than life president, this larger than life figure in our history, Theodore Roosevelt, suffered so many setbacks right from the beginning when he was a young boy and sickly and he had this larger than life father, whom he adored, who worked in the Lincoln administration. And he had these tragedies. I think it was Valentines day when he lost both his mother and his young bride. And when he left New York and went out into the Badlands on his adventure to find some solace and himself, it’s just a very compelling thing.
So having him astride his horse and looking out over the terrain seemed like the way to go.
I did a few different variations. I did two of them where he was standing, not on horseback, and just surveying the land. But there’s something about TR that combines so many wonderful aspects of the American iconography. The cowboy at West, he was wearing a fringe shirt, which was a favorite riding habit of his. And the cowboy hat and even with the spectacles, there he was surveying the land that he would eventually along with many other gorgeous and valuable and prized lands saved. Interesting man, a hunter yet a conservationist. So all these things run through your mind with any different particular program. That one was a very, very special one for me because of who Teddy Roosevelt was and what he meant for us.
CM: So when you get coins in change, do you look through them to see if any of your designs have been handed to you – or are going out to pay for something?
JI: Oh, you bet! If I go to the carwash it's like playing the casino, when I use the cash machine, you put in five dollars and you get all these quarters back and for sure, I go, that was an eagle reverse, but I could tell by the nature or by the rim of the coin, whether of course they are going to be ATB quarters, or Territorial Quarters, or State quarters. And I look at them all. And to tell you the truth, the ones that have designs by people I know, fellow artists in the AIP program, or sculptor engravers, or some of mine, I kind of hang on to them and throw them in a little bowl on my desk. I get a tremendous kick out of seeing those or getting them in change at the bakery. I check them out all the time. One of them that I’m very, very proud is the 2009 Lincoln cent. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to have one of my designs chosen for the Bicentennial Illinois cent, the third aspect of Lincoln’s professional years in Illinois. I’m very proud of that. It connects me to Victor David Brenner, in a sense. And Lincoln, of course, is also connected to Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. served in Abraham Lincoln’s administration and gave Teddy a ring with a hair embedded in amber or something as a gift to use on his hand when he took the oath of office. So all of these connections go through my mind. But I was very, very honored to be part of the Lincoln cent lineage in history.
CM: I think, if I was an artist, I’d be insufferable. Every time I’d get a coin I designed in change, I’d tell the person that gave it to me, “Hey, I designed that?” Or if I was trying to pick up a girl at a bar... of course, I’m sure they’d say back, “Oh, sure you did.”
JI: Yeah... I’m sure I speak for everyone, especially in the AIP, who are contracted artists and citizen artists, the pride that you get when some of your design work is represented on a coin or medal is immeasurable. I have had the opportunity to design congressional gold medals and one of the perks of that is being invited to the ceremony. You get to see these American heroes get their just due, sometimes after a very long wait. And it’s really stirring, it brings me back to when I was in elementary school, when live dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was a while back. But when you get to be a color guard and carry the flag or hear the national anthem, I still get chills and that kicks in when a design of yours is selected. You become a small part of that great history, so it’s magnificent.
And the other thing about coinage that is so wonderful, you mentioned it earlier, Charles. They are miniature pieces of art, but they address epic stories. So yes, the challenge to distill an epic story and to put it into a circumference at largest 3 inches in the case of a congressional gold medal and as small as a cent is a huge challenge but its so thrilling to know that that art, those miniature ambassadors travel among the society at their own pace at their own will, uncontrolled by review boards or museums or arbiters of taste. People get to experience them and learn from them in their own natural way- running the gamut from the casual spender of coins, who happens to notice, “Hey, that’s Duke Ellington on the back of that quarter” all the way up erudite knowledgable collectors such as yourself and others, who know every detail, most of which I’ve forgotten about the history of coinage. So, it’s very exciting that this art that travels through the people instead of hopping into the family car and going to a museum to visit the art. The art visits the society, which is thrilling to me.
CM: So, I’m going to put you on the spot. So, of all of the coins in the US series that you are familiar with, which would you say is your favorite design of all time?
JI: Of all time, so now we are beyond my favorite that I designed with my chubby little fingers. I think, and this is controversial, although Saint-Gaudens is the high watermark, a great sculptor, and a wonderful, wonderful coin – the Striding Liberty. And quite beautiful, considered the most beautiful American coin. But you know, I think Weinman’s walker, the Walking Liberty of Adolph Weinman is the most perfect design that you can make in the round. It just sings. It just does everything that great design is supposed to do in my mind: the break up of the space, the abstract elements, the compositional construction within the round is just perfect, the interplay of negative and positive space. And then even more so, the content. The way in which in his time and space he evoked Liberty as this dynamic figure moving, with flowing robes becoming, you know, the red, white and blue, was just a combination of so many elements working together perfectly. So you know what? I’d have to say my favorite American design has to be Weinman’s Walking Liberty.
CM: I wanted to get your thoughts on this issue, we’ve had presidents on coins for quite a long time. And believe it or not, that was a controversial decision when the presidents started to replace allegorical representations of Liberty. Do you think that putting Presidents on coins has locked us in indefinitely to this type of design, or do you think at some future date we might revisit this and redesign all of our circulating coins?
JI: That’s a wonderful question, Charles. It makes me think of two things. It makes me think of the precursor to Teddy Roosevelt and really Teddy Roosevelt and Victor David Brenner, in the absence of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, kind of conspired to break the precedent that our first president George Washington warned about. He very, very brilliantly and with great foresight said, “Do not put my likeness on a coin, you will make me a sovereign, and in America the people are sovereign.” A wonderful visionary genius, I think.
Then fast forward to 1909, as you mentioned, and a larger than life president who built the Panama canal and broke all kinds of precedents just with the force of his incredible will, conspires in Oyster Bay, sitting for Victor David Brenner’s portrait as he’s sketching Roosevelt--I did a lithograph of his, I’ll send it to you one time, of Brenner sitting in Oyster Bay in Roosevelt’s library sketching him. And Brenner having the good presence of mind to bring along his plaque that was later to be used on the cent with the profile of Lincoln, yes, breaking the precedent of only putting allegorical figures on coins for fear of deifying the human being... well, Lincoln deserved that kind of respect and I’m glad that precedent was broken and incidentally, as you probably well know, of all the art produced in the world, the Lincoln cent is the most reproduced object of art in history.
Fast forward to the second part of your question. I’m so glad that the presidents, all 44--and all the rest deserved to be depicted on a coin--but yes, I do believe that there is a lot of thought of the redesign of circulating coin and I do believe, and rightly so, that there’s talk about reinstating new interpretations of allegorical themes: Liberty, Justice, things like that, which I think would be a great continuation of that lineage. So, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that presidents have been put on coins, but I do think that it would be a good thing to revisit some of the allegorical themes, especially in the circulating coins.
CM: Well it brings to mind the issue we’ve had with currency in the last year to year-and-a-half, where a group of women agitated and lobbied for a change on the 20-dollar bill to take Andrew Jackson off and replace him with an important historical American woman, not a depiction of an allegorical woman, but a historical woman. And it seems to me once you game-plan out the politics of not only the acquiescence to the idea but then the reaction against it, which played out in the public square... it seems to me on the one hand you have a problem of representation. We are a diverse country and recognize that now, more so than we did 125 years ago, we are also, I would say, richer because of that diversity – and a lot of things have happened in the past 50 to 100 years that isn’t really represented at all in our currency or our public art. It seems like the great age of public art is in the past – that we don’t invest as much money or attention into that – and of course, there are all sorts of reasons – you can go into the political arguments that have been waged over the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) - and I don’t think in the scope of our conversation that it’s worth going down that rabbit hole, but when I think about the argument that taking a figure like Andrew Jackson off of a bill and replacing him with Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks or somebody else is like taking away something from the culture in order to give something to a smaller subgroup of the culture and there seems to be a lot of animosity to that idea and I don’t know necessarily how fair that is. I view Harriet Tubman as an American hero and what she did was good for all Americans, not solely for American women or black Americans. But it seems that this is the argument that happens, and it seems that having George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln on a coin or currency note makes it all that much more difficult imagining a concept where somebody comes along to replace those figures. It's as if we are measuring the value of the replacement against the person they are replacing. And I think that’s the danger of putting these people on coins in the first place.
JI: I think you make a very valid point, the only caveat or exception that I put in, is again, when TR broke that precedent, that very-well-thought-of precedent that began with Washington, which was very much in keeping with what the American experiment was about: that we aren’t going to have a king, we are not going to make anyone more important than anybody else. It’s essentially very democratic. You know, a country of equals before the law and before the eyes of all individuals. So you make a good point. But the only thing is that Lincoln was so revered, and so beyond words that I could express. So dearly, dearly beloved for what he accomplished in saving the Union when the whole nation was at threat. If you were going to make a precedent breaker, then Lincoln was the individual to put on our coinage, it seems to me. So I can see at the turn of the century in the Progressive era, when the Wright Brothers were flying around, and the world was changing. But yes, when you do do that, you do fall into that arena, I agree Charles, well, obviously, who we put on our paper notes and our coinage represents our most revered ideals and individuals, but if you start swapping them, are you denigrating those who get replaced. If Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, winds up off the dime, does he become passé? It brings up all these interesting political questions... and ethical and moral questions, really, of, uh, should we be subjective and use a measuring stick? What I’d like to think is that Harriet Tubman deserves to be on a federal reserve note or coin. I actually did a private sector piece of Harriet Tubman on coinage. So, certainly she deserves it. So maybe, even though Andrew Jackson was not particularly always a choir boy as it came to rights vis-à-vis his relationship with the Native Americans. Would it be better to add? To make a new two-dollar bill or three-dollar bill, and add someone, rather than take someone off and negate their relevance, whether they were approved of or not? Jackson is a very good case for someone who a lot of people didn’t approve of a lot of his policies, but historically, he deserves to be as a president. If we are going to have presidents on our coinage and our species, he deservers to be there as much as Lincoln. Or Millard Fillmore, for that matter.
CM: Well, what I would have advocated if I was in the Treasury Secretary’s position would be a complete overhaul of all of them. And say, “The presidents have served greatly and now its time to give them a rest and recognize 20th-century innovators", so now you have the Wright Brothers and the Space Program, whatever it is, now it’s a theme that effects and reflects all Americans – at that point you are not making a historical judgment of one figure or another- you don’t have to demean them to replace them. And in some respects that was the mistake in the Jackson replaced by somebody else argument, because all of a sudden you are trying to unfairly measure a woman who lived at a time in America’s history where we were fighting a war over the issue of human bondage, in an era where there was not yet woman’s suffrage against a democratically elected the President of the United States – and then the defenders will say, "Well he’s more important" – and obviously, it is more important, being the president of our country. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be an argument about comparing peoples records, it’s really about whether we have the freedom to view ourselves in a different light from time to time – and that argument gives away too easily to the tribal battles we keep having in this country about iconography and who we are as a people.
JI: I think you make a really valid point. If our diversity is not curated carefully, it could lead to division and separation, which is not what is wanted. So, I agree with you. And I applaud, by the way, I think a wonderful cure to the pitfalls that you are talking about... I hope the new Innovation dollars become law. I also hope that I’m on board on the program and get invites to submit designs for the program. Because I think it’s a wonderful, a wonderfully democratic, it’s a much more open-ended non-judgmental recognition of the American colloquy, of our conversation of what we’ve accomplished as Americans. So I think that would be a wonderful follow up to the State Quarter program and the ATB program and I think probably a more successful follow up to the Presidential dollar program. Its very democratic, it’s much more connected to the people, rather than politics.
CM: Well it certainly would fulfill my lifelong dream of having the ShamWow® appear on a coin!
JI: [laughs] did you invent that Charles?
CM: No, I don’t know if things like that are ever actually invented, or if they just exist as fever dreams for the insomniancs that watch late night tv.
So Joel, thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to share the story of your involvement in the pageantry of American coin design. I’m sure CoinWeek’s readers and listeners will learn as much as I did talking to you.
JI: I appreciate that so much Charles, and its been a pleasure speaking with you and I hope that some of my rambling comments made some sense to you and hopefully to some of the people listening in.
CM: I’m sure they did, I look forward to talking with you again soon.
JI: Thank you Charles, speak soon. Thank you.
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