Watch a fascinating video Q&A with the former U.S. Mint Lead Sculptor in the latest installment in a series highlighting NGC’s many illustrious signers.
For this month’s NGC Signer Spotlight, we’re sharing a video interview with Don Everhart, U.S. Mint Lead Sculptor (Retired). In the video, Everhart reflects on his journey as a coin designer and shares the process for creating coins, such as his Nevada State Quarter and the National Baseball Hall of Fame coins.
Everhart was employed by the U.S. Mint from 2004 to July 2017, when he retired as lead sculptor. Everhart has been involved in the creation of hundreds of coins, including some of the most memorable U.S. Mint issues of the last decade, including the distinctive eagle design that he engraved for the reverse of the 2015-W American Liberty high relief $100 and the 2016 American Liberty silver medals.
A Q&A With Don Everhart
How did you end up designing coins?
One day, I played hooky from work and took my portfolio to the Gallery District in Philadelphia. At the first gallery I walked into, I ran into the owner and she looked at my stuff and she said, “We don’t have any slots here for shows, but I work in Delaware County, and we have an opening for a job. Why don’t you come out and interview?” So, I did that, and it was the Franklin Mint.
I started there, and on my breaks, I would go over to the Sculptors’ Studio and watch what they were doing, and I was fascinated by it. It was like drawing, except it had dimension to it. And some of those sculptors were previous illustrators, and they were really good. I really admired their work.
Did you ever think you would become a coin designer and sculptor?
Not once. I thought I would be an illustrator of album covers in New York. This was totally serendipitous when I took off from work and went down there. My whole career path changed completely. It was a crossroads in my career, and I didn’t really realize it at the time until I looked back at it and recognized that’s where I branched off and really got into coins.
Explain the process you use when designing a coin.
In the case of working for the United States Mint, I would get a theme, and if there’s a stakeholder involved — and there usually is — say it’s on a quarter; they would give us three or four narratives to work with. Sometimes, we would even talk with a representative or a stakeholder or someone from the family if the main person is deceased, and we’d get ideas about which direction to go. From there, I would do thumbnails.
Very rarely do I have an idea in my head before I start working. I would research on the Internet, and sometimes I would look up stuff that had no relation to what I was doing just to spark an idea. I would work on a Wacom tablet, and I would draw on there and use Photoshop. Then, I would refine the sketch until I had where I wanted it to go. That’s pretty much the design process.
When you’re designing coins, you want something that’s immediately recognizable and tells you the story without you having to figure it out.
How long did it take before one of your coin designs was chosen?
When I started at the Mint, it took me a year until I got a design picked. I was very frustrated about it. One day, I was talking to one of the deputy plant managers, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. When they come, they’ll come in bunches.”
Within three weeks, I had three designs chosen. The one that I particularly like is the Nevada State quarter.
Why is the Nevada State quarter one of your favorite coins?
For one thing, it’s the first design I did, and I still think it’s one of the best I did. It has three ponies running, and it has sun rays coming up behind the mounds and sagebrush on the sides. The design just kind of fell together for me. I remember going into work and putting it up on my screen while I was doing other stuff, and thinking, “It’s really nice, but it will never get picked.” Then, lo and behold, one day I got a notice that it’s going to be the State quarter for Nevada.
What was your inspiration when designing the March of Dimes coin?
In the case of the March of Dimes, I felt that the subject matter had to relay what their ultimate drive was, which is protecting the young. So, I was racking my brain at the Mint one day, trying to figure out how I’m going to solve this problem.
I was working on it for hours, and then this idea flashed in my head. My daughter is a professional photographer, and when she had her second child, she took the baby home and took a picture of the child with her husband’s hand. The baby didn’t take up much more than that hand, and it was sleeping.
I thought it was a great image because it conveys that the child is dependent on his parents for everything. I thought it really described the role of March of Dimes very well. Interesting thing about it, it was a family effort. You had me, the sculptor, working off the design from my daughter’s photograph showing her husband holding her son. So, it was four of us in the same family that helped produce the idea for the coin.
In designing coins or medals portraying historical figures, how do you approach capturing the essence of the person?
First, I would think of the portrait and think of a good angle for the portrait. I try to consider what they were known for, as maybe something I could put in the background, or maybe what they were thinking. Just how they looked. Somehow — I don’t know how it works, but subjectively I’m able to make people look noble in portraits. That kind of enters into it, too. That’s what happened. I can’t explain it, but I can see when it’s happening while I’m working.
Tell us about your involvement in the coin design program that honors women.
The United States Mint has a program that’s called the American Women program, and they’re doing quarters. They do five a year. This year was my Eleanor Roosevelt design. For 2024, I had another one picked, and it’s Zitkala-Sa, who is a Native American woman who was a spokeswoman for the Native Americans. She also wrote an opera, and her name meant “Red Bird.” So, I put a little cardinal in the design.
What was the inspiration and process behind your design for the 2023 Eleanor Roosevelt quarter?
Starting out, we spoke with one of the family on the phone. When the interview was almost over, I asked, “What do you think was her most important contribution? What she felt was the most important aspect of her life?” And he said, “I think it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” so I had a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in front of a globe and scales of justice in front of it with the words “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” beneath that. And it got picked, so I was very happy about that. I really liked that design, and I had a feeling that this could be the one. Sometimes I get that feeling and sometimes I don’t, but I really had a good feeling about that.
Explain the inspiration behind your design for the Harriet Tubman coin.
I was assigned the obverse, and the theme was her work in the Civil War. In addition to her being a scout, she was a cook and a surveyor. She served in a number of different functions. I had her standing in front with her arms crossed with kind of a serious look on her face. And behind her I had an old Civil War ship and a rowboat with her in the front holding a lantern, coming ashore. So, it really told a story.
The 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame coin you were involved in designing was curved. How was that different than designing a standard coin?
They issued the program in three denominations: A gold, silver, and a clad. In a standard coin, when you strike it, there’s not so much of a problem. But when you have a curved coin, it brings other issues to bear in mind. Particularly in the clad version, because there’s several layers of different metals and they have to be able to adhere to each other. When you’re doing a curved coin strike, it throws a lot of extra problems into the process.
The engineers and manufacturing people at the United States Mint really had a hard job to solve with that. I give them all the credit in the world because they pulled it off, and it became a really nice piece of numismatic history, winning Coin of the Year.
What was the most challenging coin you have designed?
There’s a number of them, but actually the most challenging one I’ve done was a Congressional Medal for Constantino Brumidi. He was the artist of the Capitol, and on the inside of the Capitol dome he painted “The Ascension of George Washington,” which shows George Washington on a throne holding a scepter and 15 robed figures around him.
Due to my experience at the Franklin Mint, where we had to transcribe masters’ paintings from years ago into coins, I learned how to copy the subject matter and really make it look like, in some respects, the painting itself. But in this case, with the 15 figures and the portrait on the other side, it was very involved. The reverse took me, I think, over a month to sculpt, and it took several weeks just to draw it out. Everything has to look right. I had done other designs, but this one was the one that they chose because they felt like it had the most character or told the story of what Constantino Brumidi stood for.
How has the coin design process changed through the years?
In a number of ways. In my own respect, when I started at the Mint, I was drawing on paper with pencil. But one day, I was working on a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and it just wasn’t working out. So, I thought, “All right, I’m going to try it,” and I tried working on a tablet. It’s called a Wacom tablet, or a Cintiq, where you draw and use Photoshop. I did this portrait of Lincoln, and it really looked great. In fact, it got picked. We went from drawing with pencils to drawing on computers.
What advice do you have for an aspiring coin designer?
I would say persevere and be prolific. Don’t give up. Go to coin shows. Try to get into the numismatic community. Learn from as many people as you can. In my case, it was kind of lucky that I stumbled into it, but not everyone can do that. Not everyone is in that position. But I think if you stick with anything long enough and really persevere with it, and put your best effort into it, you will eventually succeed.
You’ve designed coins for U.S. presidents and met them. What was that like?
I can’t tell you what a thrill it is. To me, it’s the peak of my career to be in the Oval Office, meeting a president that I did work for. I met George W. Bush and President Obama that way, and I realized after I left that they are human beings just like the rest of us, and they were really no different, except they have all this responsibility that I don’t have.
Why do you like being part of the NGC Signature Series program?
When I look at the names of people also signing, I am very humbled to be in their company. It’s very flattering when I know that someone’s buying my signature on one of my coins, even though I don’t know who it is. It’s flattering to me that people are actually interested enough to spend their hard-earned money to buy it.
Interview courtesy of the Numismatic Guaranty Company