Art Works Blog

First Person with U.S. Mint Medallic Artist Renata Gordon

You probably know that the United States Mint is the sole manufacturer of legal tender coinage in the country. But did you know that the Mint is also responsible for designing and well, minting, commemorative coins, Congressional Gold Medals, and gold and silver bullion coins as well as everyday currency? And did you know that the Mint employs four artists who do the work of creating new coinage—like the state quarters that were first produced in 1999—in addition to special coins and medals? In addition, the Mint also contracts with a wide range of American artists to work with agency staff to create and submit new designs for various projects through its Artistic Infusion Program.

U.S. Mint Medallic artist Renata Gordon first joined the agency in March 2011, after earning a fine arts degree in sculpture at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Her projects have included work for the Code Talkers Congressional Medals Program, the First Spouse Gold Coin and Medal Program, the America the Beautiful Quarters Program, and the World War I Centennial Silver Medals (Navy), among many others. Here, in her own words, Gordon shares what she loves about working for the Mint, some of her favorite projects, and what it takes to be a medallic artist.

Renata Gordon who is a white woman with long dark curly hair. This is a close-up shot and you can see dim shapes of a workshop behind her her.

U.S. Mint Medallic Artist Renata Gordon. Photo courtesy of U.S. Mint

I've been creating artwork since age one and a half. I don't remember not being an artist. I drew a lot, and I sculpted little things out of clay. I've always known [art would be my profession]. I was a sculpture major in college but I also drew a lot, so I really think I struck gold with this job—pun unintended. [laughs] When I interned at the Mint, I realized that I was working with some of the best in the world. That really propels my work; who knows if I would've reached this level if I hadn't been working with these people all these years?

I really enjoy coming to work everyday and doing something similar to what I did the day before. That might be atypical for an artist, but I really love structure. I love the fact that I use my sculpting and drawing skills, and that it is such a challenge—I love the scale of [the work] and the history of medallic art, or what I've learned of it. And also, I like the process of refining something.

There's a long tradition of medallic art. I was recently looking at some old, French medallic art, the really subtle, beautiful, forms, and the way the light rakes across them. All of that influences us, and we draw from it constantly. We have to have a real knowledge of anatomy and form. Bas-relief is probably one of the most challenging genres of art. It's extremely challenging and it's fun!

I’m often asked, “How do you get your ideas?" So, the task could be anything from drawing an important figure's portrait, from an angle that needs to look exactly like them, to a more conceptual program. For example, we did a three-part set for Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Each of those I believe were a coin-medal hybrid, and that was our only stipulation, to represent those three ideals. When I’m making the initial drawing, sometimes I look up writings on different subjects and the words will paint a picture in my mind a little bit. For instance, for "the pursuit of happiness," I did something related to an archer; it was the idea of a pursuit.

a U.S. quarter coin piece featuring the prow of a small boat on a somewhat story river with every green trees in the background

2019 America the Beautiful Quarters® Program— Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness reverse. Photo courtesy of U.S. Mint

One of my favorite sculpts was the Ozark National Scenic Riverways quarter. I did the sculpture based on another artist's drawing. I probably speak for the rest of the artists when I say that before I start I just look at the image hard. I really look at it with a discerning eye to see what a drawing would look like in relief sculpture. I looked at the trees, and the creek running from the mill, the little house structure, and all the leaves and the ground and the rocks and the water. After looking at it for some time, with that type of discernment, I sculpted the image in clay. I wanted the water to look like it was really running over the rocks, so that was a big goal for that sculpt.

I also loved working on the Code Talkers Congressional gold medals. That project was so special because it was about the Native-American code talkers from World War II and beyond. The designs had all these beautiful nature scenes that had to do with Native-American culture. And we also had to think about the war they fought in, the weapons, the soldiers.

Outside my artistic work for the Mint, I've actually written a children's book of poems, and I am illustrating it. Having the freedom to work on the side, it feeds my work at the Mint. It reminds me that sometimes I can just let my mind wander. I bring that back to work and it refreshes me.
One thing I’ve really learned here at the Mint is that the better tools that you have, the better your work can be. Everything we have here is modified—from our desktop easel to all the sculpting tools in our entire process. I think that's necessary when you're doing something unique.

If I could only say one thing about the work I do here at the Mint, I would say to remember that it's in the realm of fine art. And I feel like I've really grown as an artist here, and as a person. I’m so blessed to be able to work here.

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