An Editor Reminisces
With the release of the Fort Moultrie (Fort Sumter National Monument) design on November 14, we have now reached the 62.5% mark in the America the Beautiful quarter-dollar program. By the time the series is completed in 2021, 56 national parks and other national sites will have been commemorated.
At the time the site selections were first announced, I was editorial director at Whitman Publishing (the parent company of this blog). Our department was tasked with producing a book covering all 56 sites. Each would get a page spread: on the left-hand (verso) page would be the text and a vertical image, while the right-hand (recto) page would consist of a full-page image of the park. Now, there are many reasons high-quality art books are outrageously expensive, and image licensing is one of them. This wasn’t intended to be a treasured object or a high-end coffee-table book; its aim was to be attractive, informative—and affordable. It was time to get creative.
And so, for several weeks, I went “off-road” in search of good-but-cost-effective photos. It ended up being one of the most challenging projects I’d ever worked on, and probably the single most enjoyable. While the writer worked on the manuscript, I scrolled through thousands of National Park Service and Flickr photos of beautiful places I’d never seen (and in some cases, never even heard of). I began to think about the designer’s job: actually representing these sites—some with clear, striking features, others with subtler qualities—on the coins. After subtracting the rim area, the canvas measures about 18 millimeters across, and there’s only one color—silver—in the palette. The designer and engraver would have a depth of about a cat-whisker’s thickness in which to use highlights and shadows to create images.
Obviously, that’s the case with every coin, but this was the first time I’d approached a coin series from the concept end. The more I thought about it, the more my respect for the Mint’s designers grew.
America the Beautiful holds together across the series much better than the popular 50 State Quarters program, in part due to the lessons of the latter. In the early years, when the states selected their own coin designs, the result was often an embarrassing clutter of unrelated images demanded by the state’s political and economic interests. (I won’t name names; I’m just grateful my home state wasn’t among them. Although I will say that, as a native Mississippian, I am heartily sick of magnolias.) After the roll-out of the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program in 2005, the quality of the designs improved dramatically. The ATB program has been beautifully consistent from the outset, and although the 50 State Quarters program, being novel, was more popular, a complete ATB collection will make a nicer presentation in an album.
Between public-domain resources like the National Park Service and the many talented photographers on Flickr and other sites who were willing to share their images for a modest fee, we were able to illustrate every park and historic site—quite handsomely, too, although of course I’m biased. After that, it was time to move on to the next book and wait for the ATB series to develop, which it has done beautifully. Inaugurated in 2010 with the Hot Springs National Park coin, the series has depicted landscape features, people, historic structures, war monuments, battle scenes, and wildlife. Although a few of the sites have presented challenges, the artists have largely succeeded in bringing them to life in a numismatic format. So far, two of the designs—the 2015 Kisatchie National Forest (LA) and the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Memorial (SD)—were named COTY Award winners for “Best Circulating Coin.”
The series is far from over, but with more than half of the issues released, I can’t help making a few lists. My picks will change as the rest of the series emerges—they’ll probably even change between now and next Tuesday—but for what it’s worth:
Most obscure site—One of my favorite parts of working on the book and following the coin series is the chance to discover obscure parks I never would’ve encountered otherwise. A good dozen or so compete for this title; I’m going to go with Block Island National Wildlife Refuge (RI, 2018). Either that or Weir Farm National Historic Site (CT, 2020). What other small, hidden treasures are out there, unknown to the wider public but worth a visit?
Most unexpected perspective—To date, this goes to Mount Rushmore, hands down. Nearly every other depiction of the monument shows the faces from the point of view of a tourist photo, but here, the designer took a bird’s-eye view of the work in progress.
Most difficult feature to render—The Great Sand Dunes National Park (CO, 2014) must have been a bear, but my pick for this category, at least so far, has to be Effigy Mounds National Monument (IA, 2017). It takes imagination to recognize the shapes of the mounds in person—but to recreate them on a coin? Not for the faint of heart. (This was also one of the most difficult parks to illustrate in the book.)
Personal favorite (to date)—I don’t know what they’re doing these days at the Mint, but their ability to create the illusion of great depth in a shallow surface is amazing. It’s most evident on coins like the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (WV, 2016)—those barrels seem to lift right up off the coin. And it looks as if you could reach an arm’s depth into the tunnel on 2015’s Blue Ridge Parkway (NC) coin, or the kivas on the 2012 Chaco Culture National Historical Park (NM) quarter. When one of those turns up in my laundry quarters, I feel a pang at the idea of running it through the jaws of the machine.
But my favorite has to be this year’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park (ND) design. The pose of Roosevelt and his horse, and the sweep of the landscape behind them, are perfect. So many landscape coins “clog up” with shapes; here, the severity of the landscape helps the artist capture the scope with a few simple lines, and the narrowing of the river toward the horizon deepens the perspective. (At arm’s length, the horse’s ears and mane do tend to blend in with the foliage, but it doesn’t ruin the overall effect.) To top it off, the tiny face on the main figure actually looks like Theodore Roosevelt. On many of our coins, when the full figure is included and the head is necessarily very small, the face is a fright under a loupe. Here, the designer’s deft touch, aided by TR’s simple, distinctive facial features, results in a masterpiece in miniature.
What do you think—what are your favorites (or least favorites)? Which under-appreciated parks would lend themselves to a coinage format? ❑