By Louis Golino, special to CoinWeek …..
Chris Costello is a Boston-based artist, graphic designer, illustrator and typographer, and an award-winning coin designer who is always involved in many projects for different clients.
He has been a coin collector since childhood and dreamed for many years of designing his own U.S. coin. Thirty years ago, he entered his first coin design competition and won the grand prize. But when he first applied to design coins for the United States Mint in 2004, he was not accepted, so he kept refining his craft.
In 2010 he was accepted to join the prestigious Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) of the U.S. Mint. The AIP was created in 2003 to contract talented artists from diverse backgrounds to work with the Mint’s designing and engraving staff to create designs for U.S. coins and medals. AIP artists have created and sculpted many such designs over the years.
Since he began working for the Mint, Chris has created 24 different designs for U.S. coins and medals and prepared drawings for more than 50-coin programs. His selected designs include several for the America the Beautiful quarter and 5-ounce silver coin program; the First Spouse gold coin (including the 2014 Eleanor Roosevelt design that was nominated for a Coin of the Year award and happens to be the single most popular coin of the series) and bronze medal program; and the commemorative coin program such as the 2019 American Legion Centennial $5 gold coin obverse and both sides of the 2017 Boys Town Centennial half dollar. Next year his design for the reverse of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site will appear on the final coin of the ATB series.
His most high-profile design to date for the Mint is probably the reverse of the 2017-W American Liberty $100 high-relief 24 karat gold coin and accompanying silver medal that depicts a majestic American eagle in flight with both of its wings spread. This coin, which features a bold and powerful eagle with its eyes focused on opportunity, provides a contemporary view of the classic eagle motif that has appeared on so many U.S. coins since the late 18th century. It received a Coin of the Year award in 2019 from Krause Publications during that year’s World Money Fair in Berlin, Germany.
Studying design, calligraphy, and illustration in college, Chris received a B.S. in graphic design and visual communication from Northeastern University. Early in his career he worked as an art director and technical illustrator for several ad agencies and developed his own families of fonts. In the 1990s he shifted to creating book covers and illustrations for major publishers like Random House and designing websites.
Chris’ numismatic designs reflect his keen interest in history, his extensive training and accomplishments in the fine arts and an appreciation for the important symbolic role of different coin motifs in conveying particular themes. These aspects of his work are strongly evident in his most recent coin designs.
That work includes The Royal Mint of the United Kingdom, where he won a design competition to design that mint’s circulating and collector coins for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage that landed near Plymouth, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620, after fleeing religious persecution in the U.K. and a brief period in Holland. The Mayflower’s global significance is underscored by the fact that 10 million Americans and over 35 million people around the world can trace their roots to the descendants of the voyage.
Designing a coin about such an important event as the Mayflower voyage — one that laid the early foundations for the establishment of the American colonies and one which forever links the U.K. and the U.S. — was clearly a major honor, especially for an American artist creating a coin for the British mint. In fact, Chris is among a very select group of American medallic artists that also includes Donald Everhart, the U.S. Mint’s former lead sculptor from 2014 to 2017 and current AIP artist, who have designed coins for The Royal Mint.
The 2020 U.K. Mayflower coin was issued in bi-metal form with a golden colored outer ring of nickel-brass and metallic colored inner portion made of cupro-nickel – as well as in sterling silver with the outer portion plated in gold and in 22 karat gold with the outer ring in 22 karat red gold.
Living in Boston for the past three decades gave Chris the ideal background to prepare the Mayflower design, which included lots of historical research on the ship and trips to museums like the Plymouth Plantation, a living history museum. There he was able to contemplate what life was like for the Pilgrims during those first harsh winters they experienced, winters that took the lives of about half of the original 102 settlers and about 30 crew members.
The design he created for The Royal Mint’s £2 coins, which have been received enthusiastically, features a dynamic image of the Mayflower at sea almost bursting out of the coin’s frame as it sails through rough waters, represented by stylized waves. Above the ship on the left side is the North Star, or Polaris, which is the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation that was especially useful for navigation during a period when maps were very rudimentary.
Before arriving at this particular image, Chris built a scale model of the ship and studied another model at a museum. Since little is known about the ship today, he had to imagine many of its features, which led to an extensive series of sketches created over the course of 30-40 hours over a six-week period.
Chris was also selected by the U.S. Mint to design the $10 gold coin and silver medal will be released on November 9 for the Mayflower 400th anniversary as well as a UK gold coin and silver medal that will be part of two two-coin proof sets (one silver and one gold) being issued jointly by both mints this fall that combine to tell the story of the Mayflower, its voyage, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag native people. Having one artist create each of these designs gives them a sense of continuity that would be harder to achieve with different artists creating different designs.
The U.S. gold coin is not part of the Mint’s regular commemorative coin program and is being authorized under the Mint’s existing broad legal authority to issue gold coins of any type.
The Mayflower joint U.S.-UK coin program tells the story by starting with the British monarchy with Jody Clark’s effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse of the U.K. 1/4-ounce, £25 gold coin while the reverse carries the same image of the ship at sea that appears on the UK £2 coin. The design also appears on the U.K. silver £2 coin that is in the two-coin silver proof set.
The story continues on the U.S. $10 gold coin’s obverse that depicts a Wampanoag family observing as the Mayflower arrives and a young boy stepping on the border of the coin, which represents the intersection of the native people in their Patuxent homeland and the Mayflower passengers. The reverse of that coin features dual portraits of a Pilgrim man and woman intended to symbolize the democratic nature of the Mayflower compact.
The story ends on the U.S. silver medal obverse with an image of a Pilgrim family bracing for the coming winter with the ship anchored in the harbor, while the reverse shows a Wampanoag man and woman as they plant crops using sustainable techniques, which they taught the Pilgrims.
Chris recently discussed his numismatic design work with The Coin Analyst.
Interview with Chris Costello
Louis Golino – I read that your father was a graphic designer and that he introduced you to creative work, which made me curious about what impact your father and his work had on your career choices.
Chris Costello – When I was about to graduate high school, I decided that I was going to make my living as a bass player since I enjoyed playing music so much. My father supported the idea but said there was no guarantee that I could make enough money to support myself, so he advised me to go to college and study commercial art because I was also an artist and I could make a good living in advertising. He was a successful graphic designer at IBM who supported our family of five and his example inspired me. I believed that I had the talent and potential to follow in his footsteps, so I decided to pursue a career in graphic design and illustration while doing music on the side.
LG – What are some of the other key influences on your work and your particular artistic style – whether it is specific artists, artistic styles or other things?
CC – My illustration style is clearly traditional. Though I have experimented with abstract and modernist expressions, I always gravitate towards the pen, pencil, and watercolor styles of the 19th and early 20th centuries. William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, and Franklin Booth are among of my favorite illustrators of that period. As a graphic designer, I am more contemporary and progressive. Design innovators such as Milton Glaser and David Carson have inspired me to take more creative risks.
As a coin designer, I like to merge traditional drawing and contemporary design styles as much as possible. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adolph Weinman, and James and Laura Frasier are among my favorite 20th-century sculptors and coin designers. When I first became an AIP artist, I attended an ANA workshop at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park where I met Chief Engraver John Mercanti, who was presenting on the U.S. Mint coin design and production process. As we walked the grounds together, I asked him what America’s coin design style was and he said it was up to us in the AIP along with the staff sculptor-engravers to define America’s design style going forward. I am very honored that I have been given that responsibility along with my fellow U.S. Mint artists, members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) to determine how America will distinguish itself through our coin and medal designs. I believe that we inspire each other with every portfolio of new designs that are presented at the committee meetings, and I hope that my contributions will leave behind a legacy of innovation, creative energy, and a unique perspective.
LG – I also read about how you developed an early interest in coins and that you dreamed as a young man of someday designing your own U.S. coins. Can you tell our readers what it is specifically that motivated you to seek that achievement and more broadly to become a coin designer?
CC – Coin, currency, and stamp collecting have encompassed many of my other interests that included art, geography, history, culture, and economics. I was enamored with coins because they are miniature sculptures of such infinite variety and lasting durability. Noticing such intricate detail on even the smallest coins, I imagined that a masterful artist must somehow be responsible for creating these designs, though I had no idea how coin art was made. Because it was all such a grand mystery to me, I just thought it would be so cool if I could design an American circulating coin (if I had only known the process and understood at the time that sculptors were responsible for creating coin models, and that sculpting was an actual profession, I would have become a sculptor instead of a graphic designer).
In 1987, as the United States Mint was preparing to announce the designs for the new Constitution commemorative coins, COINage magazine held an unofficial Constitution Coin design contest to solicit more designs from its readers and bring more attention to this U.S. Mint release. I entered the contest and won the Grand Prize out of 1,800 entries for my rendition of James Madison, a prominent signer of the Constitution. It was later quoted in the September ‘87 issue of COINage magazine that “[m]any experts have declared Chris’ entry to be superior to the actual designs chosen by the U.S. Treasury”. That quote made me consider that I might actually become a designer for the U.S. Mint. I proceeded to redesign the entire set of US coins and submitted them to COINage, who published them in the October ‘87 issue. I also placed third in another COINage contest to redesign the penny in 1990. I even prayed about designing an American coin quietly and consistently over a period of 20 years.
When a Call for Artists was announced for the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program in 2003, I enthusiastically applied but did not get accepted. I still believed I would design an American coin someday, so I set out to improve my design and drawing portfolio. Another call came seven years later; I applied again and was welcomed into the AIP in 2010. I consider it the highest honor as an artist to design coinage for our country.
It is also a special honor to have my artwork appear on coins of the United Kingdom, as I have been a contract artist for The Royal Mint since 2017. To be able to have your artwork immortalized on a coin and seen by millions of people for years to come is an artist’s dream.
LG – Can you tell us about coins and medals you have designed for mints other than those of the U.S. and the U.K.?
CC – In 2018, I designed a silver medal to commemorate Sgt. Henry Johnson after winning a national medal design competition. Henry Johnson, from Albany, New York, was an African American infantryman who saved his unit by single-handedly repelling a raid of 20 German soldiers in hand to hand-to-hand combat. He was wounded 21 times and became the first [American] hero of World War I. His regiment fought under French command and earned themselves the nickname “Harlem Hellfighters”. In 2015 he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama.
The obverse features a portrait of Henry Johnson wearing the uniform and helmet of the French unit he served with. The tall trees in the background represent the Argonne Forest in France where the Meuse-Argonne offensive occurred. The reverse features the sun rising over City Hall in Albany, NY, with a message to fellow citizens to follow Henry Johnson’s example of sacrifice for the common good and a prosperous future.
The competition judges agreed that the pairing of my obverse and reverse designs told his story in a powerful way: “We’re thrilled to be working with an artist of Chris Costello’s talent. There were so many excellent designs to choose from, but our panel of judges felt that his artwork best captured the spirit of how our city is trying to inspire people with the story of Sgt. Henry Johnson,” said Mike Dozois, Managing Partner, Ferris Coin Co.
I am also currently working with a private mint in South America on a special gold bullion project that will be available in early 2021. It’s an exciting artistic venture that I am looking forward to talking about in the near future.
LG – What are some of your favorite classic and modern U.S. coins as well as any world coins you are especially fond of?
CC – I really loved the 19th century U.S. Seated Liberty designs when I was a young collector because they reminded me of America’s Wild West. I used to treasure hunt with a metal detector when I lived in New York’s historic Hudson Valley and it was always a special thrill when I dug up Seated Liberty dimes, being the first person to touch the coins since the day they were lost over 100 years prior. The places where I found these coins could easily be reimagined as they were over a century ago, and I always felt a special connection with history and the people who last held the coins.
I also admire the classic U.S. commemorative coins of the 1920s and ’30s because of the variety of the designs and the diversity of the artists who were commissioned to create them. My favorite coin is Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar because of its lively, organic design and well-balanced compositions of typography and positive-negative spaces.
My favorite modern U.S. coin design is the 2016 National Park Service $5 gold coin by Don Everhart. It is more of a traditional design that is very skillfully composed, with thoughtfully executed typography. The story of the NPS is told very succinctly with both sides of the coin. I also think Paul Balan’s eagle design on the [reverse of the] 2015-16 American Liberty coin and medal is a masterpiece.
Coins of the pre-WWII United Kingdom and British Commonwealth, especially Canada, are of interest to me. When I first visited Quebec as a teenager in the 1970s, you could still find silver coins in circulation. During my time there, I received many pre-1940 silver 10¢ and 25¢ coins and even a 1910 King Edward VII fifty-cent piece in change! I still have it in my collection along with Victorian, George V, and other Edward VII designs from around the globe. It was a good time to be a coin collector because so many key pieces still circulated.
The 2012 Israel 2 New Sheqalim Jonah in the Whale designed by Gideon Keich (obverse) and Aharon Shevo (reverse) is a standout to me because the rendering of the subject is so powerfully recognized even in its simplicity… it’s one of my favorite contemporary designs.
LG – I assume you work with both traditional methods such as plaster models as well as digital coin designing technology. Can you please tell us a little about your coin designing techniques and the use of these methods?
CC – I design coins by creating sketches and traditional drawings with pencil and paper, then I use Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator software to finish the designs digitally. I also decided to learn sculpture when I became an AIP Artist. After seeing the coin sculpts created by U.S. Mint engravers, I wanted to best illustrate my designs so the sculptors could fully understand how to replicate my 2D drawings as 3D sculpts. I received very inspiring direction and encouragement from John Mercanti as I began working in clay and plaster. In 2016, I won a two-year scholarship to the American Numismatic Association’s Summer Seminar Art of Engraving Workshop and learned more sculpting and metal die engraving techniques from United States Bureau of Printing and Engraving (BEP) engraver Laura Stocklin. I also attended the Brookgreen Gardens 2018 Sculpture Workshop with Heidi Wastweet where each student designed, sculpted, and casted a bronze medal.
I am always inspired by [U.S. Mint] Chief Engraver Joe Menna’s digital sculpting skills and have recently started training myself in Z-Brush, the sculpting software used by the U.S. Mint and The Royal Mint. I have grown considerably as a sculptor, but I am not at the level where I am comfortable sculpting my own work for private and national mints. However, with an aggressive training schedule, I plan to create digital sculpts of my own designs by the end of 2021.
Since it is such an important role to document our culture and history through numismatic art, I take it seriously and make it my ambition to continue to grow and learn how to become the best coin and medal designer that I can be.
The author and CoinWeek thank Chris for sharing his passion for numismatic art with our readers.
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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.