The Seattle Times published a great article interviewing coin designer Heidi Wastweet. As she laments in the article, U.S. coin artists like her are
"treated like little worker bees down in the basement."
At least during their lifetimes. But coins live on and on, and someday future collectors will come to appreciate the accomplishments of today's "worker bees". These local newspaper articles publish some of the best information we'll ever have on many of the designers of our coins and medals.
In the rundown basement of Seattle's former Immigration and Customs Enforcement building is the studio of Heidi Wastweet, a 42-year-old sculptor who believes coins are exchangeable art.
Foot-long circular plaster casts of coins, etched with the faces of historic American heroes, are propped against a corner. Translucent paper tracings of portraits lie scattered on a worktable. Wastweet's prized commissions — a currency coin for the Darfur region of Sudan, the Dean's Award for the University of Washington law school, a replica of the 1964 peace dollar — glint from a wooden shelf.
Wastweet is a Seattle sculptor and medallic artist, but one of her passions is to design money — coins, specifically. Wastweet began designing coins when she was 18 at a private mint in Idaho, then switched to a different mint based in Las Vegas before going freelance. Since the late 80s, Wastweet has created more than 1,000 coins, medals and tokens.
Coins have defined the majority of Wastweet's past, and now she gets to design the future of the United States' coins. Wastweet was appointed in March last year to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, an unpaid 11-member panel that reviews the work of the U.S. Mint and advises the Treasury about what designs make it onto the billions of coins circulated throughout America each day.
Coins may be viewed as chump change, says Wastweet, but the image on a penny, nickel or quarter can influence the way we and the world view America.
"What's the one thing that every single tourist from all around the world touches when they come to the United States?" asked Wastweet. "It's our coins. If we have mediocre artwork on our coins, that leaves an impression on those visitors of a mediocre country, because art is the ultimate sign of a civilization. When a civilization is advanced enough to support its arts, it's at its height."
Wastweet thinks that the U.S. is behind the times — behind Canada, the European Union and Britain — when it comes to our coins. We're stuck in a rut of antiquated classical designs, says Wastweet, and there's been little coinage innovation because America doesn't view its currency as a work of art.
"In France, the sculptors at the mint are treated like rock stars," she said. "They're celebrities. But here they're treated like little worker bees down in the basement."
The U.S. Mint has 15 coin artists in its Artistic Infusion Program, a citizen-based stable of artists, and seven in-house sculptors. They are taking assignments to design about 50 new coins this year, said Wastweet.
Wastweet's vision is for America to create coins suitable for the current time, while still reflecting our historic past. But is the time for coins gone, as more and more people switch to credit cards and debit cards in a digitized world?
Not anytime soon, says Wastweet.
"There will always be a place for cash as long as there are illegal drug deals, garage sales and people on Craigslist buying things on a one-to-one basis," she said. "We'll always have coins."
To read the complete article, see:
Seattle sculptor wants to mold U.S. coin making into an art form
I was blown away by the quality of some of the work I saw on Wastweet's web site. Check it out!
To visit Wastweet's web site, see:
Knowing that Roger Burdette worked with Heidi on the citizen's Coinage Advisory Committee, I asked him for some comments. Thanks!
Roger Burdette adds:
Sculptor Heidi Wastweet is one of America’s most perceptive and talented artists working in medallic art. I have had the pleasure of knowing her since 2001 and have enjoyed the depth of commitment and clarity of depiction in her private and commissioned work. She treats every commission as new and fresh, bringing both creative and practical insight to the result.
I was very pleased to have her join the CCAC early last year and the Committee has benefited greatly from her professional talent and judgment. Heidi was, along with me and two other CCAC members, part of a subcommittee that conducted a comprehensive investigation of the US Mint’s coinage design process. The subcommittee’s recommendations, published in January 2011, presented the first coherent plan for improvement of the artistic quality of America’s coins and medals since the gold coin redesign commission issued to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1905.
Heidi is also a medallic artist who understands the mechanics and limitations of coinage, both on the small scale of commemoratives and the mass production required for commerce. She is open minded and willing to listen to others, yet firm in her knowledge of creative art and all its nuances.
I have nothing but praise for Heidi Wastweet’s work and for her contributions to the CCAC.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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