By Don Everhart – Former Sculptor-Engraver, United States Mint …..
Exclusive for CoinWeek
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Fresh out of college in 1973, I made a decision that would change the course of my life forever – and I didn’t even know it at the time!
Back then I was more concerned about staying alive than deciding what my career path would be. I had a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts Painting, and my vague plan was to be an illustrator (doing album covers, I hoped).
I had taken a job as a paste-up artist at a ticket and label manufacturing company in Northeast Philadelphia and had moved five times in the past year, so things were a little unsettled, to say the least.
I had higher aspirations than being a paste-up artist, however, and one day decided to play hooky and take my student portfolio to the gallery district on South Street to see if I could get a “one-man show”.
The first gallery I walked into was owned by a husband-and-wife team. Rita reviewed my portfolio and kindly informed me that there were no openings at the moment. She did, however, inform me that she also worked at a company in the suburbs of Philly and they were looking for an artist to do paste-up for their advertising plan–basically the same thing I was doing at the label company. I was enticed by the possible $1,000 increase in my annual salary and jumped at the chance because, even though paste-up was what I was already doing, in those days $1,000 was a lot of money for a young, inexperienced artist. Plus it got me out of the city.
So, I scheduled an interview at The Franklin Mint.
I was hired for the job and moved yet again to Media, Pennsylvania, about a 10-minute drive from my new place of employment.
Things were fine for about a year when the little, ever-present voice in my head said to me, “This is not what you were meant to do with your life”. I wanted to do art, not production work for advertising. Now, I thought, time to move again.
During breaks and at lunchtime I would wander over to the sculpting department and look at the bas-reliefs that were being produced by the artists. The sculptors at The Franklin Mint were held in high regard. In the 1970s the Mint was rolling, its stock splitting every six months or so. I decided that while I had my foot in the door I should try out, as the mint was in need of more sculptors at the time.
At one point, there were 37 sculptors employed full-time at The Franklin Mint!
My first tryout piece was “The Charioteer of the Delphi”, a classic Greek figure. It took me three weeks to finish. After that, I was given yet another Greek masterpiece (a bust of Poseidon) and another three weeks. But both were accepted and I embarked on my third tryout piece, which was a scene with Gugliermo Marconi working on his radio telegraph system.
While working on this project I was hired as a Franklin Mint sculptor!
I learned the process that the other sculptors were using and would start a sculpt in plastilene, and when I was satisfied with the basics, I would make a plaster cast from it. This became the negative, which I worked on until I was satisfied with it. Then I would seal it and cast a positive plaster from that. I would add finishing touches and complete the sculpt at this point.
I remained at The Franklin Mint for the next five years, working as a sculptor and learning my new craft. I had never sculpted before in my life but the low relief was, for me, fairly easy to adapt to, as it is basically illustration with a bit of relief thrown in. If one has a good knowledge of drawing and a feel for volume, then one can adapt to the requirements of relief sculpture without too much of a problem. A lot of the artists were former illustrators and helped me in my progress to master the art. Once I learned the basics of relief sculpting I became very proficient at it, and was producing between 50 and 60 finished plasters a year. My three-week timetable to finish a sculpt became three days. I always consider my Franklin Mint years as my “Master’s Degree”.
I call bas-relief sculpting “painting with light”. I position my light source above the plaster on a somewhat vertical drawing board. With this setup, using my sculpting tools, I can angle the clay to catch light or cut it away to be in shadow, working to get a good contrast between the light and shadow areas.
But around 1980 that little voice in my head was at it again. It kept saying, “Why don’t you go freelance and work at home?”
After a lot of soul searching, I took the plunge. I handed in my resignation in March of 1980 and embarked on my new freelance career.
During the years from 1980 to when I began my time at the United States Mint I worked on quite a variety of projects, not just coins and medals.
In addition to coins and medals I sculpted toys, giftware, figurines, plates, life-size figurative monuments, Disney figures, flatware for Tiffany’s, and many more different projects.
In 1982 I designed and sculpted “Dance of the Dolphins” for the Society of Medallists. This was a medal program where two medals a year were given to subscribers. I’ve always had a deep interest in the ocean and the animals that inhabit it. I executed my design, and a few months later entered it in a “reliefs and medals” show in New York City held by the National Sculpture Society. Much to my surprise it won first prize and gave me a lot of confidence in my design and sculpture abilities.
In 1993 I sculpted “Tyrannosaurus Rex”, again for the Society of Medallists. This medal was so popular that I was commissioned to sculpt five more dinosaur medals to create a set. Each medal showed the living dinosaur in its natural habitat with contemporary wildlife on the obverse. The reverse contained the fossil remains of the animal in the process of being freed from stone by the hand of a paleontologist.
Unfortunately, this unique series was discontinued in 1995. But I feel very honored to be in the company of the other sculptors that contributed to it.
In or about 1991 I was delivering a sculpt to the Franklin Mint and was chatting with Charles Vickers, who was still on staff at the time (I later worked with Charles at the United States Mint. In fact, we were both hired on the same day!). He told me about another medal series that was of great interest to me. It was a medal series by Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. Brookgreen Gardens is a classical sculpture garden and wildlife preserve near Murrells Inlet. One medal a year is given to members of the gardens. The theme had to be either the flora and fauna of South Carolina or the history of the state.
I have always been fascinated by dinosaurs, reptiles, and all things creepy-crawly, and decided that I’d design a die-cut medal of a hermit crab that lives near the beach at the gardens. It was a freestanding medal that was both cast and struck according to the Medallic Art Company, which produced it. I actually sculpted it in two separate halves that would line up and orient to each other when put together. It was the first freestanding medal in the Brookgreen series and had a very whimsical quality to it. The obverse shows the animal from the front, inhabiting its shell, with claws emerging from the bottom left and right; the reverse shows the swirl design of the shell with the lettering, “Brookgreen Gardens, South Carolina”. In this instance I was inspired by the psychedelic lettering on concert posters from the 1960s. After all, I am a child of the ’60s.
In 1996 I was contacted by Bob Hoff, the owner of Medallic Art Company–which, at the time, was the premier mint in the production of medals in the country. I had done a lot of calendar medals for Bob, an assignment I enjoyed because medals offer more freedom in design than coins. Medals have higher relief to work with and one doesn’t have to design with proof coin parameters design in mind.
He asked me to design an inaugural medal for the second Clinton Administration. I was very hesitant at first. I told him that the project was a lot of work to be done on speculation. The artist would only get paid if the design was chosen by the president or the Inaugural Committee. I would have to design an obverse with both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and pair it with a fitting presidential reverse. I fought Bob for a while, not wanting to invest the time and effort.
But he got me with this: “I think you can win it.”
I worked for six weeks on the project and waited about a month until one day I received a call from Bob. I picked up the phone and waited in silence for quite a while until he uttered, “Congratulations!”
Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
I always enjoyed working from my own studio. I was my own boss and I could work my own hours. No commute, no early morning wake-up call, etc. Most all the time I was very busy, and when I wasn’t busy I hustled to get more work. Many days were spent on the phone or trips to New York for the annual giftware shows at the Javitts Center.
I always felt very lucky. Whenever I was slow and really needed to pick up commissions, they always seemed to happen. Of course, you make your own breaks, and I never hesitated to make it happen. Having a mortgage, car payments, a wife and kids has a way of motivating a young artist.
Sometime in the early 1980s, I became a member of the fledgling American Medallic Art Association (AMSA). The organization works to encourage the creation, study, and appreciation of the American fine art medal. Back in the beginning there weren’t many members and I remember the group meeting in Domenico Facci’s studio in Manhattan. We were united in our admiration and the continuation of the art of the medal in the United States and abroad. Through the years the organization continued to grow and now numbers about 133 members.
Despite the ubiquitous nature of technology today, the medal endures. In the beginning, it was a vehicle to praise leaders and disseminate the news of the day. It’s no longer where we get our news, but it survives because it is such a unique personal experience for the viewer. Unlike most sculpture exhibits with roped-off sections and guards to prevent one from touching the work, the medal encourages touch. One can hold it in one’s hand and marvel at the art. Many medals by top sculptors can be purchased for a fraction of what one would pay to own a larger piece.
Additionally, it has yet another dimension: the dimension of time. As one turns the medal over from obverse to reverse a segment of time is revealed. I utilized this idea to the max with my dinosaur series. As you turn over the obverse of the Tyrannosaurus Rex medal, you encounter the reverse–in this case the fossilized remains–65 million years later.
AMSA now has a worldwide following due to hard work and its participation in FIDEM (Federation International de la Medaille d’Art) exhibitions. The exhibitions are held every two years in a different European city, with occasional excursions to the United States and Canada. There you will see how different artists from different counties interpret the art medal. It’s an enlightening experience, to say the least. I have exhibited in a few and attended shows in London and Colorado Springs.
Not everything I have done is a commission. Back in the 1990s, I produced a number of pieces for exhibit that attempted to stretch the boundaries of medallic art. Some were freestanding, non-round portrayals of reptiles such as “Crocodile Rock” and “Chameleon”. Unfortunately, I haven’t produced much for myself lately but am hoping my retirement will afford me more time to work on my own art.
Around the early 2000s, freelance work began to diminish. This was due to a number of reasons.
One, giftware companies that I worked for were now shipping their sculpt projects to “the Orient”.
Two, The Franklin Mint had saturated the market with coins and the new ownership decided to sell other products instead. They sold dolls, model cars, books, food! Everything but coins. At any rate, I could see the handwriting on the wall – I was going to have to get a real job! I always had it in the back of my mind since I began sculpting coins and medals that somehow, I would wind up at the U.S. Mint.
That idea became a reality on January 4, 2004, when I got up out of bed at 5 am on a Monday morning and drove an hour in the dark to my new position as a Sculptor-Engraver at the United States Mint.
It’s been a long, strange trip from that day when I walked into the gallery on South Street. Sometimes you make a decision and it turns out to be a monumental, life-changing experience.
Sometimes you have no idea of the ramifications it will have on your life path.
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You can see more of Don’s sculpture and design work on his website: