During my visit to New Ross, County Wexford, and just after the official launch ceremonies for the collector coins issued by the Central Bank of Ireland to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland, I was able to sit down with the designer of the coins. The design was entrusted to well-known Irish Artist Tom Fitzgerald who has cultivated quite a name for himself as a sculptor and working with oils and canvas. His coin design was inspired by some of President Kennedy’s most memorable photographs and images produced at the height of his world-wide popularity and the result is a starkly vivid and almost nostalgic depiction of the 35th American President – the first US head of state ever depicted on an Irish coin.
Born in County Limerick in 1939, Tom has continued to live and work in his hometown. Following his studies from 1965-69 at the Limerick school of Art, he held the position of head of sculpture there from 1976-2000. Fitzgerald has exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions in Ireland and abroad. In 2004, The Limerick City Gallery of Art and the Model Arts and Niland Gallery exhibited Fitzgerald’s solo exhibition. He has also held solo exhibitions at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin; Butler Gallery, Kilkenny and the Rubicon Gallery, Dublin. Tom’s commissioned work is located in Ireland and Germany. Public collections include Butler Gallery, Kilkenny; Irish museum of Modern Art; Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Dublin and Limerick City Gallery of Art.
As Tom now adds a commission of this set of collector coins from the Irish Central Bank to his wide ranging list of projects, we discussed in his only interview thus far about his contribution to this project. We also touched on the inspiration for the design and eventual production of what may become one of the more popular and sought-after coins issued in Ireland. Just three days before the official launch, the first and second strikes of the gold and silver coins were presented to the remaining members of the President’s immediate family, that of his daughter Caroline and his sister Jean during a reception in Dublin marking the historic anniversary.
MA: Congratulations on this historic commission, I think the design is an exceptional depiction of the President, and I’d like to start off by asking where did you find your inspiration for this depiction which is seen on the coins?
TF: I did spend a lot of time looking at photographs, film footage during Kennedy’s visit to Ireland and an array of images of the President before deciding on one which I would base my own design. I really thought that a front facing image would be the most recognizable depiction of the president, especially from that era and that’s what I wanted to re-create.
MA: With Kennedy’s image as seen on the new coin, the moment you see it, you know just who he is, he’s such a part of history now, and with your depiction, he almost seems to be looking in an upward direction, is this how you meant for him to look in this design and if so, why was that?
TF: Well, in the many images I viewed, the President seemed to be looking up into the air – almost into the distance or the future and with my depiction, I tried to “hold” that image. The actual design process required a lot of steps in order to get that desired look, it requires going back and forth to the Bank’s design committee making sure the proposed design was possible to produce on the coin itself, elements of shade and definition had to be taken into consideration.
MA: I understand this was your very first coin design..?
TF: Yes, I had submitted coin designs earlier to the Central Bank over the years in succession but I wasn’t expecting this project, I was approached by the design committee and usually, I’m more used to having my proposed designs rejected… (smiles) This time around, I was offered the commission and when you’re offered a commission for any art project, you have to fulfill it.
MA: Having yourself seen the coin and hearing the reaction of those who see it, and I think much of the reaction is positive, do you think your vision for the project was carried out – that the production adequately re-produced your work?
TF: There is always a little compromise I think, I would have liked to have included other little details but overall, the image does have to be recognized, if the design is too fussy or too ambiguous then you have a problem with recognition and that was the most important element for this coin. Ordinarily for a coin, there is a profile so this front-facing depiction provided some challenges but I think the engravers indeed did a good job.
MA: I heard you yourself saw the President in Dublin during his visit, you must have been quite young at the time, do you remember this day well?
TF: Yes, I was in the crowd, I was just 23 at the time and working for the Electricity Board – I didn’t really like that work so I gave it up in favor of art! I remember the motorcade, and of him waving to the crowd – right on Dame Street and right where the Central Bank is today though that building wasn’t there at the time.
MA: This being your first completed coin design project and with experience and under your belt now are you ready to take on another commission?
TF: My background is as you know more in sculpture, I also like making very low-relief sculpture and coin design is in itself very challenging. I think I prefer to work with physical materials. Coin design has to have a very specific purpose and you work in certain parameters. With the small surface there is to work with on a coin, I was very surprised by how much detail was included on the strikes and before this experience, I knew nothing about the minting process.
MA: As some of my readers will notice, your last name is Fitzgerald, and I know the name is heard very often in Ireland but I’d like to ask do you know if there is any relation to the family of the President with his mother Rose also being a Fitzgerald?
Not that I know of, I’m from Limerick, there are a lot of Fitzgerald’s still in the county and I can trace my family’s ancestry all the way back to the Norman times, to the 11th century. The President’s Great Grandfather was also Thomas Fitzgerald but who knows, I suppose it’s always possible…
MA: It would be a kind of full circle scenario if there was a family connection, Tom Fitzgerald, thank you so much for your time today on the occasion of the official day of launch for the Kennedy 50th anniversary visit to Ireland coins – here where it all happened, New Ross County Wexford.
My appreciation goes to the Coin & Currency Centre of the Central Bank of Ireland for their kind invitation and to the head of the Department Margaret Daly for all of her kind assistance on the day. The two coins, gold and silver examples are available directly from the Central Bank of Ireland as a two-coin set and a single silver coin. Please visit their website at: http://www.centralbank.ie/paycurr/collector/Pages/Coinsets.aspx For more information on Tom’s work, please visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomfitzgeraldsculptor