By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
On February 4, 2019, U.S. Mint Director David J. Ryder appointed Joseph Menna – a New Jersey-raised artist and sculptor with almost 35 years’ professional experience — as the 13th Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. His appointment filled an important gap at the top of the Mint’s engraving and sculpting staff. The position had been vacant since 2010 when John Mercanti retired from the Mint after having held the position since 2006. Mercanti is best known as creator of the current reverse of the American Silver Eagle that the Mint plans to discontinue at the end of 2020.
Historically, artists and sculptors like Mercanti who have held this important position have created some of the best and most important coin designs in the history of the Mint. Other notable examples include the last presidentially-appointed Chief Engraver, Elizabeth Jones, who designed the 1982 George Washington half dollar, and George T. Morgan – the British-born engraver and sculptor best known as the creator of the Morgan silver dollar who later served as Chief Engraver.
Prior to being appointed as Chief Engraver, Mena already had 14 years’ experience as a medallic artist and sculptor with the Mint plus 18 years’ experience of artistic training and professional work as a leading digital sculptor creating action figures and collectible toys as well as life-sized statues and portraits. He was also the first full-time digitally skilled artist to work for the U.S. Mint and played a critical role in the development of the Mint’s first coins created using digital technologies.
In his book that has become the standard reference on the series, American Silver Eagles: a Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program, 12th Chief Engraver John Mercanti discussed the hiring of Joe Menna (page 41). As the Janvier reduction lathes that artists like Adolph Weinman had used to create plaster models of designs for coins like the Winged Liberty dime were being phased out, the Mint decided it needed a digital sculptor. After Menna joined the staff in 2005, Mercanti noted that Menna became a mentor to other artists and staff members in all matters digital and that he nicknamed Menna the “Yoda” of digital sculpting. Mercanti also said that Joe’s ability to adapt and use digital programs was critical to the Mint moving forward in this realm, which has only become more important since then.
Menna has for many years been one of the world’s leading digital sculptors and was an early adopter of 3D printing. His work creating pop culture collectibles is very extensive, and he said in a March 19, 2012 interview in Action Figure Insider that the biggest cultural influences on this work include “comic books, Star Wars and Dr. Who”.
But he also brings to his work extensive classical art training, including drawing and sculpture. After graduating from the University of Fine Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and obtaining a master’s degree in the same field from the New York Academy of Art, he did post-graduate work in Russia at the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz Academy of Art and Design.
In Russia, Menna studied with Soviet-born artist Leonid Lehrman [above], who Menna described in a March 18, 2014, Philadelphia Inquirer article as “the guy who changed my life” and as his “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. He has also said that the artistic level of the art in Russia was superior to what was produced at the time in the West, where there was a lot of emphasis on abstract art.
Menna’s classical training and his use of digital technologies are complementary and reflected in both sides of his career. In his fandom-related work this enabled him to create works with incredibly detailed and lifelike details, while in coin development, whether a design is created with traditional plaster models or with computer software, all coin designs are later digitized so they can be refined.
In fact, Menna’s extensive background in and use of digital techniques does not alter his overall approach as an artist, which is that of classical realism – an artistic movement that places strong emphasis on skill and beauty. As he noted in the 2012 interview, his classical background made the transition to digital sculpture relatively easy.
U.S. Mint Career
Since 2005, Menna has designed and sculpted dozens of coins and medals for many different programs, including several that have won Krause Coin of the Year awards such as his design for the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Park quarter dollar that won an award for Best Circulating Coin. That design provides a very different view of the monument from more traditional depictions with its close-up, side profile of the faces of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well as a sculptor working on the monument.
He may have decided on that motif because of his previous experience designing the Presidential $1 coin portraits for the same two presidents during the first year of that series. In a November 29, 2006 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer Menna noted what “a great honor” and “head trip” it had been to design the coin of the first president because he had always wanted to be an artist from the time he was a child. His mother Barbara Menna said after his Chief Engraver appointment (in comments posted online) that Menna “began to draw as soon as he could sit up and hold a crayon!”
Menna said in 2014 when the Mint interviewed him (published on December 10, 2014) that the Presidential $1 series is the favorite coin series on which he has worked. In addition to designing the 2006 Washington and Jefferson coins, he also designed the obverse of the 2015 Eisenhower and 2014 FDR coins and both sides of the 2013 Teddy Roosevelt coins.
Menna’s extensive work for the Mint includes not just designing coins and medals for many major programs over the past 14 years but also sculpting designs created by other artists, such as several of those in the First Spouse $10 gold coin series. One of those sculpts is most likely in your change right now – the one he created for the current reverse of the Lincoln cent – the Union Shield design created by Lyndall Bass. Menna also sculpted the 2015 Kisatchie National Forest quarter dollar design, which won a COTY award for best circulating coin.
As Chief Engraver, Menna serves as art director for the Mint, providing artistic approval of coin and medal designs and overseeing design development, which includes work from the Mint’s three current sculptor-engravers (Renata Gordon, Michael Gaudioso, and Phebe Hemphill) plus those from artists in the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program (AIP). The Mint periodically issues a call for artists who wish to join the AIP. In July of this year it hired 27 artists for the program, including 11 with prior Mint experience (such as Donald Everhart) as well as 16 others who have not worked for the Mint. These artists bring a wide range of talents and interests to their work. Several AIP artists such as Justin Kunz and Chris Costello have designed award-winning coins.
In that December 2014 U.S. Mint interview, Menna also discussed how lucky he had been to be the “first digital artist at the Mint” and to introduce new technologies in the production of our coins. He added that he “only [sees the Mint] continuing to grow in that direction as we move forward.”
Some longtime collectors, especially those who grew up collecting classic U.S. coins from change that were designed and produced using traditional methods, have expressed a dislike or apathy toward coins created using digital technology. But they probably are not even aware of the role those technologies have played in creating some of their favorite modern issues.
It is simply a fact of life that the U.S. and other world mints will continue to harness technologies like digital scanning to create works of numismatic art and coins with higher reliefs and special finishes. Joseph Menna’s background that combines classical training with extensive use of digital sculpture perfectly positions him to guide the U.S. Mint’s artistic future in the 21st century.
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“Joseph Menna: Designer of Washington and Jefferson Dollar Coin Portraits”, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 29, 2006
“Interview with Sculptor Joseph Menna”, Action Figure Insider, March 12, 2012
“Carving heroes and villains from virtual clay”, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 18, 2014
“No Ordinary Joe: Joseph Menna, Medallic Sculptor”, www.usmint.gov, December 10, 2014
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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.