By Don Everhart – Former Sculptor-Engraver, United States Mint …..
Exclusive for CoinWeek
During my 13+ years as a sculptor-engraver for the United States Mint, I had the opportunity to work on Congressional Gold Medals for many prominent leaders and heads of state. Additionally, I had the honor to work on two Presidential Medals.
More about them later.
The Dalai Lama
One of my favorite Congressional Gold Medals (CGMs), however, was for the Dalai Lama. I designed the obverse and actually got to meet His Holiness.
Tenzin Gyatso, born in Tibet, became the 14th Dalai Lama in February of 1940 and assumed full duties in 1950 at the age of 15. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. For his medal, His Holiness requested a portrait of himself along with the Himalayan Mountains in the composition. The engravers were all tasked with working up designs for the medal sometime in 2006. One of my designs featured the Dalai Lama with his hands folded in prayer in front of the Himalayan mountain range.
I had a good portrait reference of the Dalai Lama’s head but I wanted to show him in prayer. I recruited Jim Licaretz, one of the staff engravers, to pose for me with his hands folded. I took a snapshot and used the photo as additional reference for my design. So when you are looking at the medal, you are looking at Jim’s hands (who’s going to know?).
I then added the mountain range behind him and a ribbon with the wording “Act of Congress 2006”. Additional text included “14th Dalai Lama of Tibet” around the top perimeter of the design.
The CGM Ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda in February of 2007. Several members of the Mint staff were invited to meet with His Holiness in his hotel suite before the ceremony. My boss, John Mercanti, and Ed Moy, the Director of the Mint, accompanied us to the much-anticipated meeting. It was THE hot ticket!
We all sat in a circle with the Dalai Lama to my immediate left. Everyone spoke briefly to him and when it got around to me I mentioned that I had gotten quite a feeling of serenity when working on this medal, which I directly attributed to him. He leaned forward to speak to me and I expected to hear the secret to eternal happiness. Instead he asked “Did you give me hair?” while brushing the top of his head. I assured him that I did. We all had a laugh and then proceeded to talk about male pattern baldness.
Later I reflected on how surreal this was.
After the sit-down meeting the Dalai Lama gave each of us prayer shawls. Before leaving the hotel suite we all posed with His Holiness for pictures. We left feeling like we had met one of the most consequential figures of our lifetime.
Before I worked at the U.S. Mint, in 1996, I designed and sculpted the Second Administration Inaugural Medal of Bill Clinton and Albert Gore. It was quite an honor for my work to be chosen and I felt it might be one of the only chances I would get to work on such a high-profile commission. When I was freelancing I would occasionally work on what I considered to be important commissions. But after I became a United States Mint Engraver I sincerely thought that everything I worked on was important. My work would become a part of the narrative of our country’s history.
On the third floor of the Philadelphia Mint is a room called “The Presidents Room”. It was where the Mint would hold special meetings (and still does), and where news stories are often filmed. It is a beautiful room, with parquet floors, period furniture, and American flags. One wall in The Presidents Room is lined with plaster and galvano models of all the U.S. presidents. Many times I would enter the room and marvel at the work that was done previously by some of the giants of American medallic sculpture. Works by John Sinnock, Gilroy Roberts, Charles Barber, George Morgan and many others adorn the wall.
George W. Bush (2001-2009)
In 2008 I was asked to sculpt the portrait of the George W. Bush Second Administration Presidential Medal. These medals differ from the Official Inaugural Medal. The Presidential Medals honor the past Presidents of the United States and are produced by the United States Mint. The official Inaugural Medals, however, are produced by private mints and are usually an open competition. As in my with Clinton-Gore mentioned above, the medals are produced by an independent artist and struck by a private mint, then presented to the Official Inaugural Committee of the president-elect. The sculpting is done on spec (you don’t get paid unless your medal gets chosen).
After she retired, Donna Weaver’s obverse design for the Second Administration Medal of George W. Bush was chosen as the winner. Since she was retired and no longer on the Mint staff, she was no longer eligible to execute the sculpt. In a case like this another staff artist at the U.S. Mint is designated to do the sculpting.
I sculpted Donna’s design, a dramatic profile of the president looking slightly down and to the right. The design had a border that contained the wording “George W. Bush” and two stars to indicate that it represented his second administration. Donna did great work for the Mint. She is a top-notch designer and sculptor.
Donna and I, along with Director Moy, all received invitations to meet with the president in the Oval Office on his last official full day in office, January 19, 2009. After a short wait outside, we were ushered into the room. The president was in a good mood, joking with Ed as we walked in. Bush was very jovial, relaxed, and engaging. I felt that he was feeling quite relieved to be leaving office and to have this burden lifted from his shoulders. He gave us presidential buttons, cuff links and tie tacks as parting gifts, and we posed with him for photos. After about 20 minutes we left.
About a month or so later, I received from him a signed photo of myself standing next to the president and a hand-signed note thanking me for the work I had done, telling me he intended to display the medal in his future George W. Bush Presidential Center. I realized that no matter what one’s politics are, these men are flesh and blood human beings with human feelings. We can never comprehend the pressures and stress that they endure as leaders of the free world.
Being invited to the Oval Office by the President for work I had done was be the ultimate compliment and definitely the height of my career. Like I said, this was a huge honor for me. I only had one reservation, however. Sure, I sculpted the Bush portrait but it was not my original design. It’s the curse of never being satisfied…
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
During almost the entire Obama Administration, the engravers did not hear any news about a potential Presidential Medal. It is a tradition that goes all the way back to George Washington; would this be a gap in the succession of Presidential Medals?
Finally, in late 2015 we got approval from The White House to proceed with designs for President Obama’s first and second administrations. The two medals were to be struck with a total of four sides to be designed, considering obverses and reverses.
My obverse was a traditional left facing profile of Barack Obama with the words “Barack Obama” in an arc around the rim of the medal.
The two reverse designs were the same basic format as each other, featuring a 50-star border with either an image of The White House or the Presidential Seal, along with his signature and the date of each inauguration.
I worked hard on these designs and the many others I submitted that weren’t chosen. I worked weekends in addition to my regular hours at the Philadelphia Mint. I even gave up a multi-day bike trip one weekend with my cycling buddies to work on these medal designs! If you know me, then you know it’s serious when I decide to work rather than ride with my friends.
We sent the designs over to the White House and waited to hear back.
One afternoon I was driving home from work and my phone rang. It was April Stafford, head of the Program Development Department at headquarters in Washington, DC. She told me that the White House had decided and selected my second-term obverse and both of my first- and second-term reverses! It’s hard to concentrate on driving when you get news like this. Luckily for me I was only a mile away from home.
The first-term obverse design was beautifully drawn by Richard Masters, a long time Artistic Infusion Program artist. Phebe Hempill sculpted a stunning portrait of the president, looking upward and to the right. My traditional left-facing profile of President Obama was the choice for the second term.
It was a challenge to portray him a bit more aged than he was in the first term (my reference showed him younger), but I managed to capture him looking appropriately older. How do you convey graying hair in a sculpture?
Rhett Jeppson, Acting Director of the United States Mint at the time, relayed to me that we were to be at the White House on January 17, 2016 to meet the president in the Oval Office to present to him his medals.
Rhett, his Chief of Staff Elisa Basnight, and his aide Justin Gradek–together with Phebe and myself–arrived at the White House on a rainy and gloomy Tuesday afternoon. After waiting outside the White House grounds in a pouring rain, followed by a long walk, we arrived at the West Wing entrance, guarded by a most decorated Marine. We were soaked by the time we finally got indoors. But no one was complaining.
We waited first in a receiving room for about 40 minutes, making small talk and brimming with anticipation. Finally an aide came in and told us it was time to meet the president. She took us to a small anteroom adjacent to the Oval Office where we waited for about 10 more minutes. Suddenly, the door swung open and President Obama himself gave us a hearty “C’mon in!”.
We filed in with handshakes from the Commander-in-Chief one at a time. Also in attendance was the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, and Sarah Bloom Raskin, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.
I was impressed by how the man held himself, with grace and intelligence. He was obviously very fit. He was quite a bit taller than I am and I looked up when we were shaking hands. He had a real presence about him.
Phebe and I gave the president details on the process and production of his medals. He said several times how much he liked them. We posed for several photos by White House Photographer Pete Souza, then left after a visit of about 20 minutes or so.
It had stopped raining by the time we left the White House and the five of us went our separate ways. But I am sure none of us will ever forget that day!
In 2007 Congress authorized Public Law 111-44 under the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11. We began designs for this CGM sometime afterwards, with the goal of presenting the medal in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda in November of 2011.
The medals were to honor the three Apollo 11 astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Also, Mercury astronaut John Glenn was to be honored by the gold medal.
Mint engravers, along with the Artistic Infusion Program artists, were asked to prepare designs to commemorate the event.
Both sides of the medal were designed by Joel Iskowitz, with portraits of the three Apollo astronauts and John Glenn of the Mercury missions on the obverse. The reverse depicted the Apollo 11 capsule in orbit and the lunar LEM in the process of landing on the lunar surface. Phebe Hempill sculpted the obverse and I sculpted the reverse design.
Phebe, Joel and I were all invited to the ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington on Wednesday, November 16, 2011. It was a beautiful ceremony, with speeches by President Bush, Speaker of the House John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Neil Armstrong. The event, like most other CGM ceremonies, lasted about an hour.
After the chaplin of the Capitol finished the event with a prayer, the attendees began filing out of the Rotunda. The three of us were beginning to make our exit when we walked past a roped-off area with a Capitol aide standing there directing people out of the building. As we were walking past her she asked us if we were attending the post-ceremony reception. We didn’t know anything about a reception but I looked around to Phebe and Joel and managed to reply with a somewhat unconvincing “Yes”. She then ushered us past the barriers toward the room where the reception was being held. I am not sure to this day if she knew that we were the artists involved in the creation of the medal.
The room was bustling with groups of people chatting, drinking and eating hors d’oeuvre. I spotted several of the astronauts immediately. Joel, Phebe and I soon found ourselves in conversations with several of them. I met John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford. What I remember most was shaking hands with Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and thinking, I can’t believe I am actually meeting these American heroes!
On July 20, 1969, as a college student on a warm summer night, I sat with my parents, eyes glued to a small black-and-white TV as the Apollo Lunar module descended and landed on the moon’s surface. A few hours later we watched as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and left man’s first footprints on another world. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that some day in the future, I would be working as a sculptor for the United States Mint and shaking hands with the first man to step on the moon!
Five years after that momentous event, I would walk into a gallery in Philadelphia with my student portfolio with the rather humble goal of securing a one-man gallery show and my life and career path would change completely.
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You can see more of Don’s sculpture and design work on his website:
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