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Weir Farm inspired another portfolio with many beautiful works of draftsmanship. The Mint’s artists captured the themes the CCAC and Weir Farm’s liaisons discussed in a telephone meeting in October 2017, regarding the site’s connection of art with the natural landscape. As the historic site’s officers told us, they’re faced with a challenge when people first hear the name “Weir Farm”—this is not an agricultural farm but a “National Park for the Arts,” with historic studios and cultivated landscapes where artists today can paint in the open air.
One concern I had, as I looked at these remarkable sketches for the Weir Farm coin, is that they might not translate well to the one-inch “canvas” of a quarter dollar. They would make wonderful large-diameter medals and would be well served by the three-inch silver planchet (every America the Beautiful design is minted at circulating quarter-dollar size and also as a larger .999 fine silver coin). But at one-inch diameter, fine detail gets lost. Details that connect, interact, and communicate at a larger size can blur together when everything is reduced.
Here’s a recent example of minute detail that looks good at a larger size, but is lost on a quarter dollar: In the 2018 Apostle Islands quarter, the figure of the kayaking park visitor gets lost in the detail of the water around the sea caves of Devils Island. The water is nicely rendered, and the entire scene is well done. Enlarged on your computer screen, or in print, it’s beautiful. But when you hold the actual coin in your hand and tilt it at certain angles, the kayaker almost disappears. This changes the meaning of the design and of the coin. Look through your pocket change or coin jar to find an example of this quarter, and see if you agree.
Among the Weir Farm designs, at first, I considered CT-01, 03A, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17 to be too minutely detailed to make good coins. Discussion with other CCAC members and Mint managers led me to see ways in which some of them could work.
CT-13 and 14 were popular with the committee. I know that they would make very nice large-sized medals. They remind me of Mint medallic sculptor Joe Menna’s design for the 9/11 Flight 93 Congressional Gold Medal, with its boldly sculpted foreground and softer, more delicate, almost ghostly background.
CT-13 and 14 both use a “picture within a picture” concept, as senior committee member Donald Scarinci put it. They show a canvas resting on an easel, with the Farm’s landscape pictured both in a soft background and in a more detailed painting on the canvas. These were the two designs we leaned toward most.
CT-03 I felt had potential. The artist’s hand would be visible in the white space of the background canvas. Giving central design elements a plain background, rather than setting them on top of busy detail, makes them “pop” visually. The rest of CT-03’s design, though, depends on a lot of fine detail, including the main paintbrush, which is a crucial element. Would the paintbrush have to be cartoonishly thickened to be visible on a quarter dollar? Also, some of the main elements are set on top of the busy and finely detailed background. On a one-inch coin, the paintbrushes on the left might be lost against the stone wall and grass, the way the Apostle Island kayaker is lost in the water around Devils Island.
CT-04 is a nice scene of artist J. Alden Weir’s studio but it doesn’t convey the sense of active, participatory artistic expression that is so much a part of Weir Farm today.
CT-05, as simplistic as it might appear at first glance, captures all the aspects of “plain air” painting that the CCAC discussed in our initial conversations in October 2017, and it also shows the stone walls and gardens of the farm. I admire this design as being very “coinable”—it has a bold central visual element, but also some contextual detail, and good use of white space for emphasis.
CT-06 was one of our liaison’s preferred designs, with its portrayal of J. Alden Weir painting outside his studio at Weir Farm. This shows the actual environment of the site and uses text to drive home the “National Park for the Arts” concept. The CCAC appreciated the artistry of the design and its historical significance, but ultimately we felt it wouldn’t translate well to the small diameter afforded by a quarter dollar.
CT-10 and CT-11 are too simplistic to make great coins.
CT-12 shows an artist painting at an easel. At six or seven inches, it’s easy to see that she’s painting Weir Farm. At the size of a quarter, that context would be lost; her canvas would simply be too small to make out any detail. Without a sense of specific place, the artist could be painting in a studio or outdoors in a desert, or anywhere.
CT-15 works, even without explicitly showing an artist painting on a canvas. I like the way the main focus is on the landscape. The white space of the painter’s palette communicates without being hit-you-over-the-head obvious, and its curves fit with the natural landscape better than a squared, right-angled easel and canvas would. The text, “National Park for the Arts,” emphasizes the site’s connection between the outdoors and the arts, just in case you don’t get the message. (One of our liaison’s concerns with this design is that most people today won’t recognize the curvature at the bottom as being a painter’s palette.)
CT-18 was our liaison’s second choice for the coin design. However, it found little love among the CCAC. The scene does convey the “plain air art” aspect as well as the natural scenery of Weir Farm. But the landscape is given no prominence; it’s a sliver of detail in the far background. Committee members disliked that the back of a canvas takes up so much of the scene; and noted that disembodied hands are difficult to portray well in coin relief.
After much discussion, including with our site liaison from Weir Farm, the CCAC moved to request several design resubmissions from the Mint’s artists. Instead of submitting a recommendation to the secretary of the Treasury now, we’ll review the modified designs as soon as possible and then make our recommendation.
Dennis Tucker is the numismatic specialist on the U.S. Treasury Department’s 11-member Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. He is a life member of the American Numismatic Association and publisher at Whitman Publishing.