By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
Acclaimed coin and medal designer Joel Iskowitz — one of the most prolific living American medallic artists – has been keeping busy since moving on last year from his position as a member of the United States Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program (AIP). He recently shared information about some of his latest work with CoinWeek, which focuses on military and space-related themes.
Joel’s work often pays tribute to important historical events and the people who shaped them by developing designs with carefully chosen motifs that are not only pleasing aesthetically but also accurate historically and scientifically.
Joel is best known in numismatic circles for the 54 coins and medals he designed for the U.S. Mint, including five reverses for the American Platinum Eagle Proof series, seven commemoratives, nine $10 First Spouse gold coins and bronze medals, six quarters (including the 2019 Lowell Park and the War in the Pacific National Park coins) and four presidential dollars – as well as 15 Congressional Gold Medals (also issued in bronze).
At the time of his departure from the Mint in March 2018, Joel had produced more designs than any other member of the Mint’s AIP.
He has also designed many coins and medals for other countries and is the only American designer who created an effigy of Queen Elizabeth in 2015 that was used for coins issued by Tristan da Cunha and other British Commonwealth countries.
He is also a highly experienced painter and portrait artist, whose influences include the great artists of antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome) as well as those of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Iskowitz’s work has been displayed in prestigious museums and government buildings such as the White House, the Pentagon, and the Capitol. He views himself as a narrative artist above all, whose “art tells a story.” And before designing or painting, he does extensive research on the subject matter.
Joel’s work since retiring from the Mint has mostly consisted of commissions from foreign mints, coin companies, and other organizations. For example, in 2018 he designed a series of gold World War I remembrance coins that pay tribute to the heroism of fallen British soldiers, using as their central motif an allegorical image of Victory as an angel. These designs were inspired by the victory medals given to the returning soldiers of the momentous war as well as the famous poem, “In Flanders Field”.
Alvin York Medal
One of Joel Iskowitz recent projects is another one related to the First World War — a medal commissioned for the East Side World War I Centennial Celebration that depicts Sergeant Alvin York, one of the most-decorated U.S. Army soldiers of the 82nd Infantry Division during the Great War. York, who was from Tennessee, led an attack that helped force the Germans to surrender when he killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured another 132 on October 8, 1918. He received a Medal of Honor for those heroic efforts, which were part of the U.S. portion of the Argonne-Meuse campaign in France.
Joel was asked by Howard Teich, co-chairman of the East Side World War I Centennial Committee, to design a medal that would pay tribute to the service and sacrifices of York and other New Yorkers and Americans in that major war in a way that takes account of and reflects the ongoing impact of the war. The committee is dedicated to paying tribute to the heroism and service of the soldiers and civilians, New Yorkers and other Americans, and to encouraging reflection on the human legacy of the war such as what lessons it holds for today.
Joel noted that at first the scope and complexity of that task was daunting, but that he was reassured when he reflected on his background as a narrative artist in which he has often had to “visually relate many similarly epic and multi-faceted historic events.” Moreover, his past work designing Congressional Gold Medals was very relevant to the task since they were subjects of “sweeping and inspiring histories.” Given not only York’s military heroism but also his educational and humanitarian work afterward, the medal would “serve as a fitting recognition for this national hero and the context of this era,” which is what his design achieves.
The obverse of the medal depicts a portrait of York based on a 1919 photo along with on the right a vignette of his military actions during the famous campaign for which he received the Medal of Honor and on the left a scene of Eastside Manhattan during that period including a York Avenue street sign that was previously known as Avenue A and renamed for the soldier in 1918.
The reverse of the medal consists of a central motif of “Victory bathed in the glow of enlightenment”, standing above a globe and carrying the American flag in her right hand and an olive branch of peace in her left hand. Victory is flanked by vignettes that focus on the role of women in the medical and humanitarian aspects of the war on the left as well as motifs on the right suggestive of the extensive social changes of this era of history such as the suffragist movement. The Victory arch that was erected in New York after the war but later demolished is also shown on that side.
The medal measures 100 millimeters in diameter – a size intended to symbolize the centennial commemoration. 100 standard bronze medals will be issued, and 10 Artist Proof bronze medals individually numbered on the edge will also be struck. The medal was designed by Joel, digitally sculpted by Mark Peterson, and struck by Medalcraft Mint in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
On May 20 Joel presented the Eastside WWI Centennial York medal to Col. Gerald York, grandson of the most decorated hero of WWI Sgt. Alvin York, in a ceremony and symposium at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
Joel Iskowitz NASA Experiences and New Frontier Medal
In 1991 Joel was invited along with some other artists as part of NASA’s Arts Program to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. There he learned more about the history of NASA’s space program, saw firsthand the Cassini space probe, and witnessed the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-37), whose payload was the Gamma Ray Observatory – a mission that was intended to test Albert Einstein’s theories about the universe. Afterward, he produced a painting of Einstein and Atlantis called “Sources of Light” that is part of NASA’s permanent collection and on view at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Center.
“A few years later, on assignment for the United States Air Force Art Program, I was at Kennedy Space Center again, visually documenting the enormous complexities of another shuttle launch from the vantage point of the Disaster Preparedness Division. Those experiences left me with a profound and lasting appreciation of the dedication, ingenuity, and courage that the Space Program demanded of so many – resulting in the epic triumph of placing earthlings on the moon and returning them safely to Mother Earth. From the early days of the Mercury program, through all the Gemini and Apollo missions, each presented tremendous obstacles and very real dangers. I am proud to continue to help tell this story through my artwork.”
In 2011 Joel was asked by the U.S. Mint to design the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal, which was awarded to the astronauts of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission–Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins–and to John Glenn, whose Friendship 7 mission marked the first time an American circled the earth in 1962. Like other medals of this type awarded to individuals who achieve great things, the medal was also issued in bronze and sold by the Mint in two sizes: 1.5 inches in diameter and another that is three inches. Both remain popular products.
The obverse features portraits of all four astronauts as well as a smaller image of an astronaut standing on the moon next to an American flag and the earth. The reverse shows both the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module orbiting the moon and the Friendship 7 mission capsule orbiting the earth. In preparation for the design of this medal, Joel studied Glenn’s mission notes extensively in order to make sure the direction and orientation of the orbit were depicted correctly. The gold medal was given to the four astronauts during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
After seeing the medal, John Glenn said that Joel’s “artwork is of national historic significance.”
Apollo 11 Medal
As the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 first manned moon landing approached, Joel was asked to design an ultra-cameo half-ounce Proof gold medal, which as he said: “is a superb way to recognize the ingenuity and heroism that led to that extraordinary moment in time.” He added: “I believe my firsthand experiences at NASA and KCS informed this gold medal I designed to honor this American achievement which forever changed the way the human race conceives of itself and our shared experience on our precious home planet.”
The gold medal, endorsed by NASA and struck by the Sunshine Mint in Idaho, features an obverse inspired by the famous Apollo 11 mission patch designed by astronaut Michael Collins, who remained on the Lunar model nicknamed “Eagle” during the time Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface. There are also inscriptions for “1969”, “Half Ounce” and “.9999 GOLD.” Joel noted that “the design was received very enthusiastically by NASA authorities,” which is something they rarely do for a private-sector design.
The reverse shows an astronaut proudly saluting the American flag (in the center of the design) planted on the moon during the mission (which had been required by law), as well as a boot print on the lunar surface. On the lunar horizon is the earth with the United States visible.
“The astronaut saluting the American Flag is both meant to be symbolic of all the astronauts in the NASA programs from the early days of the Mercury program right on through the future explorers who will ultimately visit other planets in our solar system such as Mars as well as to refer specifically to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, who indeed saluted the flag on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Similarly, the boot print on the lunar surface is intended to represent both the generic first footprint of an earthling on another celestial body as well as specifically Neil Armstrong’s imprint on the Sea of Tranquility.”
Joel’s medal is part of “The Eagle Has Landed” commemorative set that also includes the smaller New Frontier medal, the 1969 10-cent stamp by Paul Calle that shows Armstrong stepping on to the moon and a reproduction of the Apollo 11 mission patch.
CoinWeek Podcast #42: Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz on the State of Modern Coins
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Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column “The Coin Analyst” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) for Best Website Column. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”.
In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.