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In Memoriam: Robert-Ralph Carmichael, 1937-2016

The wildlife and natural beauty of Canada is one of the predominant themes of Robert-Ralph Carmichael’s work


By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….

Saturday, July 16, 2016 saw the passing of nationally-known Canadian artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael, aged 78.

He produced a large body of work during his life but is perhaps best known for a deceptively simple piece of public art seen by hundreds of millions of people and reproduced over a billion times since its initial creation: the “Loonie“, Canada’s $1 coin.

Like many timeless designs, the circulating bronze-plated dollar coin known as the Loonie is often taken for granted. Yet this is not always a bad thing; it means that Carmichael’s art–while beloved by many–has become one of the countless invisible threads of everyday life. According to a statement to the Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art (CCCA), Carmichael said that the “major theme” of his work is “the human condition … our relationship to the environment” and “our relationship to each other”.

It can be argued that few objects in and of themselves express the human condition as succinctly as a coin.

The Loonie debuted it 1987, but notably it wasn’t the original design for Canada’s new dollar coinage. The original design called for a representation of the reverse of the 1935 George V silver dollar, which featured a Native American and a voyageur paddling a canoe. Dies were made and shipped from Ottawa to the Royal Canadian Mint’s facility in Winnipeg, where the country’s circulating coinage is manufactured. Unfortunately, the dies were lost en route and the Mint, fearing the potential for counterfeiting and malfeasance, decided that the best way to handle the situation was to generate new dies using a different design.

Carmichael’s iconic artwork was the winning selection, though the process from paper to coining press was not entirely straightforward.

For one thing, Carmichael’s original art depicted an Arctic loon (Gavia arctica) swimming in front of an iceberg. The Mint had him change the bird to a Common loon (Gavia immer), and the iceberg to a generic island. For another, the piece was only his first accepted coin design for the Royal Canadian Mint after 10 years of rejected submissions, showing that persistence–and the courage it takes–are just as essential to an artist’s success as talent is, if not more so.

At any rate, the coin was a hit. Many admired the new design, and the general public accepted the new coin in its day-to-day transactions. In 1992, Carmichael’s hometown of Echo Bay, Ontario erected the “Big Loonie” in honor of its native son and his famous design. It was also a nod to the nearby town of Sudbury’s “Big Nickel“, a 30-foot tall replica of the 1951 Canadian nickel created in 1964 by entrepreneur and Sudbury resident Ted Szilva.

Robert Carmichael also produced other commemoratives for the Mint over the years. In 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a 99.99% pure silver commemorative coin celebrating the 25th-anniversary of the Loonie that featured a new design by the artist riffing on the original.

In 1998, he produced a loon stamp for the Canadian Post that was also featured in a special coin and stamp commemorative set.

Carmichael’s paintings and other works can be found in national collections such as the Art Gallery of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, the Canada Council Art Bank in Ottawa, the University of Calgary, in Queen’s Park, Toronto and the Alberta Arts Foundation in Edmonton. An extensive list of his work can be found here.

Robert-Ralph Carmichael died at Algoma Residential Community Hospice (ARCH). He is survived by his wife, Gwen Keatley. Per his wishes, he was cremated and no services are planned. The Carmichael family suggests that memorial donations be made to ARCH.

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Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker
Hubert Walker has served as the Assistant Editor of CoinWeek.com since 2015. Along with co-author Charles Morgan, he has written for CoinWeek since 2012, as well as the monthly column "Market Whimsy" for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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