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Many of the design proposals in the National Park (American Samoa) portfolio are nicely drafted. Some are almost photographic in their detail.
This isn’t necessarily a strength when it comes to medallic sculpture.
Fine detail can be a challenge to translate into coin form, especially when the coin is as small as a U.S. quarter dollar. Take a look in your pocket change at a recent example: The 2017 Ozark Riverways quarter shows Alley Mill, a steel roller mill built in 1894, which visitors can tour today. Seen in the three-inch America the Beautiful silver coin, the design is beautiful, with a richly detailed view of the trees, running water, and rocks surrounding the mill. In its sketches, in enlarged printouts, on your computer screen, it works very elegantly. However, on a one-inch coin, it’s much less successful—visually it becomes a flour mill and a blur of landscape. We can see the forest but not the trees. It’s hard to discern where the woods end and the stream begins. The rocks are lost.
As a general rule: If a design depends on subtly nuanced detail to communicate at six or seven inches, and that detail can’t be scaled down to a one-inch coin, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee will dismiss the design as unusable.
For the National Park of American Samoa coin, certainly AS-03 is too detailed.
As committee member Heidi Wastweet pointed out, what AS-03 was trying to do with a photorealistic approach, AS-14 actually accomplished with a simpler style. In AS-14 the fish, coral, water, and mountains are stylized in a way that would translate well to the small canvas of a quarter dollar. AS-03 was one of the preferences of our liaisons, representatives from the National Park. However, because of the challenges of its style, in our voting (where each committee member could give a design 1, 2, or 3 points) it earned only 6 out of a possible 24 points.
AS-04 and AS-05 I felt could work as coins. My concern was that these don’t convey the natural world of ocean, volcanoes, coral reefs, and wildlife that some of the other designs do (although AS-04 does provide more landscape context to the Samoan man blowing a conch shell). It’s interesting to note that the National Park Service leases the land of National Park of American Samoa, rather than owning it outright. As Aaron J. McKeon points out in America’s Beautiful National Parks: A Handbook for Collecting the New National Park Quarters, this respects local customs and family-based landholdings.
For that reason, I do find significance in this depiction of a Samoan man ritually blowing a conch shell, especially with the addition of the shoreline in design AS-04. Ultimately AS-04 and AS-05 fared poorly in our voting, earning only 2 points and 1 point out of a potential 24.
AS-07, with its scene of mother and baby fruit bats, had some energy around it in our discussions. The sketch itself relies too much on shading (remember that a coin is made of silver or copper-nickel, not pencil lead on paper), but if the Mint’s sculptors feel it could be translated effectively through texture and depth, I would support this design. The fruit bat is iconic of American Samoa. I could see the “bat coin” being popular with collectors. Like AS-03, AS-07 was one of our liaisons’ preferred designs. Among the CCAC, it was one of our second choices (earning 10 of a potential 24 points, as did AS-14).
AS-08 brought some discussion among the committee. It was mentioned as the third choice of our liaisons’ preferences. It ended up being a mid-level choice of the CCAC, earning 7 of a potential 24 points.
AS-09 was not generally popular among the committee, although it has elements that we liked.
AS-10 I found to be nicely balanced, with its juxtaposition of the flying fruit bat and the swimming sea turtle, showing also the park’s ocean and volcanic mountains. It packs a lot of representation in its small surface. In our committee vote, it earned 6 points.
AS-12 to me was an intriguing possibility. It’s a good composition that offers special context. The Samoan flying fox, or fruit bat, is the park’s only native mammal. It’s a unique ambassador for American Samoa, and this design manages to make it “cute” and active without being cartoonish. The design shows enough detail to provide background that’s relevant, rather than just filling space. And the artist bravely left a blank field instead of trying to say something visually in every square millimeter of canvas. This white space emphasizes the bat and contributes to the illusion of its flight.
There is an unusually high number of motion-driven designs in the American Samoa portfolio. I like designs that are active. To my eye, the flying bat in AS-12 is the most dramatic of them. My fellow committee members didn’t share my enthusiasm for AS-12; it earned only 5 points (3 of them coming from me).
The design that stood out for the CCAC was AS-13. It’s visually striking, and it has special significance to American Samoa, so it’s not just a “pretty picture.” It has motion. It has a strong primary element in the Threadfin Butterflyfish and a beautiful secondary element in the tattooed wave spiral. Ron Harrigal answered my question about the fine detail in the wave: Will it translate to the small coin format? Harrigal said yes, the Mint’s Philadelphia-based staff of medallic sculptors could do it. AS-13 earned 22 of a possible 24 points in our voting, and it’s our recommendation to the secretary of the Treasury for the National Park of American Samoa 2020 quarter dollar.
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.