By Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
Who’s responsible for bad coin design? Not the CCAC, says CoinWeek Assistant Editor Hubert Walker in this three-part report and commentary.
Last week I spent the most educational seven hours on the phone that I’ve ever sat through in my entire life.
I learned a lot about contemporary coins, coin design, Congressional medals and medallic art. I also learned, in a hands-on sort of way, who does what in the coin design process.
It’s self-evident now, but that’s one reason why meetings like those held by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 27-28, are open to the public: to create a better-informed constituency.
At this week’s meetings, several new coins and coin designs were discussed to varying degrees of completion. But in a way, what I learned about American coins and the era of numismatic history we live in renders the specific coin programs under consideration incidental–though you’ll know all about them by the time you finish reading this report.
The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, founded by Congress in 2003 to give regular citizens more of a say in the coin design process, consists of a number of expert appointees. Some chairs are reserved for experts in specific fields–there must be an expert in American History, for example.
As far as coin experts go, the law authorizing the committee seems relatively well-thought-out. Provision is made for a numismatist, a curator of numismatic material, and an artist skilled in sculpture or the medallic arts. Three Seats are reserved for nominees that “represent the interests of the general public,” and four individuals are nominated by various political figures (two for each party).
The beauty of this arrangement, however, is that even the “general public” seats tend to be filled by experts in one or more aspects of the work that confronts them.
And if the political appointees brought ideological agendas to the table, I didn’t see it.
The current members of the committee, and the positions they hold (with terms of service in parentheses), are as follows:
- Dr. Michael Bugeja (2011-2015) – Numismatist
- Erik N. Jansen (2011-2015) – Representative of the General Public
- Gary Marks (2011-2015) – Committee Chairman and Representative of the General Public
- Mike Moran (2011-2015) – Recommended by the Senate Minority Leader
- Robert Hoge (2012-2016) – Numismatic Curator
- Donald Scarinci (2012-2016) – Recommended by the Senate Majority Leader
- Jeanne Stevens-Sollman (2012-2016) – Representative of the General Public
- Thomas J. Uram (2012-2016) – Recommended by the Speaker of the House
- Mary Lannin (2014-2018) – Recommended by the House Minority Leader
- Dr. Herman Viola (2014-2018) – American History
- Heidi Wastweet (2014-2018) – Sculptor and Medallic Artist
You might be familiar with some of them. Dr. Bugeja is a well-known numismatic writer and active in local and regional coin clubs. Mike Moran is another famous author. His book Striking Change (2008), about the collaboration between Teddy Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens that resulted in some of the most beautiful American coins ever made, is a personal favorite of mine. Heidi Wastweet is a well-regarded artist with an immediately recognizable style, who has produced work for various private mints, including the popular Zombucks® series.
Erik N. Jansen is a businessman, philanthropist and lifelong coin collector.
Robert Hoge was the curator of the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA’s) Money Museum for 20 years, teaching at the ANA’s summer seminar for almost as long.
Donald Scarinci frequently writes and teaches about art medals, working closely with the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the American Medallic Sculpture Association (AMSA).
Gary Marks, Committee Chairman, is a city manager and artist in his own right.
Jeanne Stevens-Sollman is an award-winning medallic artist and president of the AMSA.
Thomas Uram is a businessman and lifelong collector, active in many clubs and the current president of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists.
Mary Lannin is a businesswoman and life member of both the ANS and the ANA. She’s also a member of several art museums and other regional, national and international numismatic organizations.
Dr. Viola is the American History specialist and has worked at the Smithsonian Institute in different capacities.
Of course, this is an abridged list of their individual accomplishments–check out their bios on ccac.gov–but I think it’s safe to say their bona fides are in order.
The first meeting was held on Tuesday, January 27. It commenced at 9:34 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) and ran for five hours.
Several programs were on the agenda, and representatives from organizations supporting each program were introduced:
- Representing the 65th Infantry Regiment–also known as the Borinqueneers–Congressional Gold Medal program was Sam Rodríguez, Washington, D.C. Liaison and Operations Coordinator of the Borinqueneers Design Liaison Team.
- Representing the Jack Nicklaus Congressional Gold Medal program was Scott Tolley, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Nicklaus Companies.
- And representing the 2016 National Park Service 100th Anniversary Commemorative Coin program was Jason Rano, Director of Government Relations for the National Park Foundation, and Donald Leadbetter, Centennial Partnership Coordinator for the National Park Service.
Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal
First up, and setting the tone for the day, was discussion of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal.
Discussion began with April Stafford, Program Manager of the U.S. Mint’s Office of Sales and Marketing. She gave some background on the Borinqueneers themselves, the gold medal program, and potential design considerations.
Having been unfamiliar with the Borinqueneers before the meeting, much of what I learned about them came from her introduction. The 65th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, nicknamed the “Borinqueneers”, is an army regiment based in Puerto Rico. Originally consisting of native Puerto Ricans, the 65th was one of the last segregated units in the Army, seeing action in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. A member of the regiment fired the first shot fired at the enemy by an American soldier in World War I.
Stafford then introduced some of the key themes recommended for use on the medal. For the obverse, these include the 65th Infantry Regiment’s name, the nickname “Borinqueneers”, and the regiment’s crossed rifles insignia. For the reverse, the 65th’s dates of activity, the conflicts they fought in (WWI, WWII, Korea), the group motto HONOR ET FIDELITAS (“Honor and Fidelity”), a depiction of Fort San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”) in San Juan, the unit’s Maltese cross insignia, and laurel wreaths.
Mr. Rodríguez followed by explaining what an historic moment the meeting was for Puerto Rico. Chairman Marks then opened the floor to questions.
Rodríguez was asked for his opinions on the design. He said that he was “intentionally neutral” on the design and wanted to give the committee and the artist freedom to work. He did say, however, that it should reflect both the 65th’s Puerto Rican and military heritage–which the nickname “Borinqueneers” does ably, since it comes from the native name for the island, Borinquen.
Mr. Rodríguez then discussed the Borinqueneers’ service in the Korean War, which many Borinqueneer veterans would like to see portrayed on the medal. In the Korean War, the 65th Infantry Regiment is famous for “taking the high ground” from Chinese forces–a task for which the Borinqueneers were especially well-suited. According to Rodríguez, the regiment’s first recruits were jíbaros, “country boys” from the mountains, who enlisted in the U.S. Army as soon as they learned they could, in order to gain a better life for themselves and their families.
As far as how regiment veterans thought the medal should portray their action in Korea, many thought it was important to show the men as they actually fought – in a diamond formation with fixed bayonets. Some recommended that a 1992 National Guard painting of the 65th charging up a hill be used for reference, though not necessarily the basis of a design.
Javier Morales, the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Liaison Team Advisor in Puerto Rico, then addressed the committee. He spoke about how the Borinqueneers had been forgotten, and that many hadn’t even received veteran’s benefits. Mr. Morales further emphasized aspects of their service in the three great conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century: how they served with the 3rd Battalion in France, Italy and Germany in World War I; how many servicemen learned English in the Army during WWI and WWII; and how the 65th itself trained other soldiers for combat in Korea.
For all of this, Mr. Morales simply asked that the medal be memorable.
Col. Dennis Freitas, a professor of military science, told the committee that the Borinqueneers are famous for initiating the last infantry bayonet charge in United States history, and proposed that this be represented on the medal. He also recommended including the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags, and a central motif consisting of the dates of activity (starting with 1899) and crossed infantry rifles, all over a shield that says “Honor and Fidelity”. Under the shield, WWI, WWII and Korea would be listed, with “U.S” and “Puerto Rico” underneath that.
At this point, committee members began to weigh in.
Erik Jansen stated he was particularly moved by the words “uphill battle” in Sam Rodríguez’ report to the CCAC. He also said that the Maltese cross is a powerful symbol and could serve as the central motif.
Jensen then advised the committee not to use the architecture of El Morro for the medal, since it had already been featured on the reverse of the 2009 Puerto Rico United States Territories quarter.
It was here that I began to see how thoughtful the committee members were, and how serious they were about good design.
Mary Lannin then asked Mr. Rodríguez if there were any notable pictorial portrayals of Puerto Rico as the “daughter of the sea and sun”–as she is called in “La Borinqueña”, the official anthem of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Rodríguez said no. Presumably, Ms. Lannin was thinking of using an allegorical, anthropomorphic representation of the island itself.
She also proposed making a Maltese cross out of bayonets, combining two of the group’s symbols in one.
Next was Dr. Herman Viola. He spoke about how proud he was to be a part of the design process for this particular medal, which isn’t surprising given the work he’s done on Native history at the Smithsonian. Viola asked Mr. Rodríguez if the liaison team had created any designs. Rodríguez said that some veterans and stakeholders had sent them in–giving intellectual property rights to the group–but again he stated his desire to remain neutral.
Chairman Marks then viewed a three-ring binder of the Borinqueneer group’s designs, concepts and suggestions–provided to the committee by the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Alliance–which he promised to supply copies of to the other committee members after the meeting.
It was also noted that the National Association of Uniformed Services had submitted designs.
Heidi Wastweet then made the first of several important and frank observations that she’d make over the course of the next two days. Referring to the large number of them the committee has to look at, she said that military medals tend to look “generic”, and that the Borinqueneer design should focus on what is unique about the regiment.
Listening to the meeting, it was clear that Ms. Wastweet’s statement was in no way a slight on military medals. Far from it. Her comment was a plea to allow commemorative coins and medals to do their job as effectively as possible, to honor our servicemen and women with excellent, memorable design.
She also advised the committee to avoid using too many words, another unfortunate trend. Ideals like “pride” and ”courage” tend to fall flat, she said, when presented as mere words, and that people are tired of “reading” coins and other numismatic objects.
Following up on these comments, Jeanne Stevens-Sollman asked Mr. Rodríguez and Mr. Morales what they thought was the best way to represent the Borinqueneers. Rodríguez suggested that the committee might portray individual, highly-decorated soldiers of the 65th Infantry Regiment, pictures of whom he had included in the materials given to Mr. Marks. Soldiers like Sgt. First Class Juan Negron, the posthumous winner of the regiment’s first Medal of Honor.
Rodríguez also suggested that the flag of the United States take preference over the Puerto Rican flag, since the unit was no longer confined to the island alone (with members in states as far away as Texas and Hawaii).
Gary Marks then requested that the Borinqueneers’ diamond-shaped fighting formation be an integral part of the design. Rodríguez recommended that the formation be portrayed head-on to show that these were men who had to fight in close quarters, often in hand-to-hand combat.
Michael Bugeja, who happens to be a citizen of Malta as well as the United States, made the point that several crosses resemble the Maltese cross, and care should be taken to make sure it was depicted correctly. He agreed that the 65th’s insignia was a good depiction.
Robert Hoge pointed out the opportunity to use the Spanish language to distinguish it from other military medals.
Mike Moran then reminded everyone that what works on a large canvas, like a painting, doesn’t necessarily work on a small canvas, like a medal. He also suggested that the design be more creative than just an infantry charge.
Sam Rodríguez then spoke about the medal’s importance to posterity. For one, Hispanic students in Infantry School would see the medal as a source of pride. For another, he suggested that the regiment’s motto be rendered in Latin to help ensure future generations’ exposure to it.
Frank Medina, National Chairman of the Borinqueneer Alliance and one of the major forces behind 2014’s legislation, echoed the suggestion to use Spanish, saying it would be representative of the demographic shift under way in America. He also said that the Puerto Rican flag “cannot be dismissed in the design”, and that many veterans would like the 3rd Infantry Division (of which the 65th is one regiment) patch portrayed on the medal.
Mary Lannin also liked the suggestion to use Spanish, but as a former Latin student she also liked the idea of using Latin. Therefore, Lannin suggested that “Honor and Fidelity” be inscribed in English, Spanish and Latin, encircling the reverse. Hoge approved of the idea.
Then Greg Weinman, Senior Legal Counsel for the United States Mint, clarified that the text of the authorizing legislation specifically stated that the 65th Infantry Regiment is to be honored. This rules out individual portraits and the use of military patches other than that of the Borinqueneers, he said.
And with that, discussion of the 65th Infantry Regiment Congressional Gold Medal was brought to a close
An auspicious start, I thought. Maybe the next five hours wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Next: The 2015 High Relief Gold and Silver Coin Design and the Jack Nicklaus Congressional Gold Medal…
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