In August of 2012, the U.S. Mint issued an invitation to coin journalists, various national newspapers, television networks, and the like, to attend a preview of the new Visitors’ Center at the Philadelphia Mint.
As it turned out, Mary Counts, president of Whitman Publishing Co. LLC, and I were the only numismatic people on hand among the media reporters.
Realizing that the coming year 2013 would include the New Hampshire coin honoring the White Mountain National Forest as part of the America the Beautiful quarter dollars program, during our August stop in the Mint’s Engraving Department, I sought out the artist scheduled to work on the quarter. This turned out to be Phebe Hemphill, an accomplished sculptor and designer who, surprising to me, had already completed designs, sketches and by then had a clay model that more or less represented what the final product would be.
Delighted and intrigued, I spoke with Phebe in some depth and took notes and pictures.
As the launch time for the 2013 quarter dollar approached, I interfaced with Tom Jurkowsky of the Mint’s Public Affairs Office and Acting Mint Director Richard Peterson, and arranged telephone conversations and discussions with Phebe, and a Feb. 20 interview. The result was a unique view of the creation of a quarter dollar design, the 16th in the America the Beautiful series, from the first concept down to completion, a procedure that, I believe, has never been outlined in print before. Phebe’s interview is included here, together with my comments.
Phebe’s list of accomplishments is quite lengthy. She certainly has turned out an amazing list of medals and coins for the Mint. Who knows? She might be the subject for a book sometime in the future.
An exclusive interview
On Feb. 20, 2013, I conducted an exclusive and far-ranging interview with artist-sculptor Phebe Hemphill, touching upon aspects, some little-chronicled in print before, of interest to numismatists:
Q. David Bowers: Let’s talk about the New Hampshire quarter. How were you selected to do the work on it?
Phebe Hemphill: It was an open competition. The sculptor-engravers here at the Mint were involved in it and also the Artistic Infusion Program artists, who are an outside group of artists that the Mint uses as freelance designers. My design was chosen, and I got to sculpt it as well.
QDB: I have five images of proposals by various artists. I believe these are the semi-finalists. How many entries were there totally?
PH: Let me try to remember.
PH: There were some designs that were culled out and that didn’t make it to the final round. So I believe that the ones that you are looking at would have been the final round.
QDB: Do all the sculptor-engravers at the Mint participate?
QDB: And who makes the final selection?
PH: There are two committees in Washington that recommend the winning design to the Mint, they are the CCAC [Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee] and the CFA [Commission of Fine Arts]. They make recommendations, but it really is the Mint’s decision.
QDB: And decision at the Mint is made by Dick Peterson, the acting director? Or by the secretary of the Treasury? I believe that in years past it has been one or the other.
PH: It is usually on the secretary of the Treasury’s desk and that’s who signs off on these things, I think.
QDB: You have Mount Chocorua pictured. How was that subject selected? Or, how did you find that?
PH: We were given some reference material from White Mountain National Forest and amongst the images we were given there was an image of Mount Chocorua. I also did another design that depicted a birch tree forest and you are looking through the birch trees at a mountain, I’m not sure if it was Chocorua or not.
QDB: I’ll look at the other designs, but Mount Chocorua was your pick? For example, there is Mount Washington, which is the largest mountain, so other people picked whatever they wanted?
QDB: Tell me a little bit about your career and I’ll just listen.
PH: I was lucky. My grandfather was an amateur sculptor and I have a deep, family connection to bas relief sculpture. My grandfather’s aunt studied with Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the Art Students’ League back in the 1890s. My grandfather researched his aunt’s work and uncovered a lot of her sculpture and information on her life. When I was young I would go into my grandfather’s studio where he was practicing bas relief sculpture. I was able to hang out with him while he was working. I then decided to go to art school at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was able to study traditional figure and portrait sculpture with EvAngelos Frudakis at his small academy in Philadelphia. It is this study, with a master sculptor, that enabled me to have a career in sculpture. After many years of freelancing for various collectible companies and working for toy companies I was hired at the Mint.
QDB: How long have you been at the Mint?
PH: I’ve been here since 2006. A thrilling moment was when I got here I was able to participate in the Tuskegee Airmen congressional gold medal competition. My obverse was chosen so I got to sculpt that fairly soon after I got here.
QDB: Is the Tuskegee Airmen medal still available from the Mint?
QDB: Who did the reverse?
PH: Don Everhart did the reverse.
QDB: I’ve never met Don in the flesh, but he is certainly a creative person. I have his Society of Medalists medals showing dinosaurs.
PH: He is the lead sculptor here.
QDB: So you did the Tuskegee Airmen? That was your first completed work?
PH: It wasn’t my first, but it was the first big one that I was able to get involved in.
QDB: Now with the Tuskegee Airmen, how did you create the design? Or of any medal for that matter. Are you told what to do, or how do you go about creating a motif?
PH: That one was pretty wide open. They didn’t want specific people depicted so I really had to make it all up, using references but not copying anything. That’s the case with a lot of these design projects. There are problems with using disputed copyright images, so we try to come up with a lot of the designs on our own.
QDB: Tell me about some of the other things you’ve done. Have you done any of the Statehood quarters or any other National Park quarters?
PH: Oh yes. I was at the Mint when the National Parks program started and I got to do several. I did the Arizona Grand Canyon.
QDB: You need to redesign George on the obverse by the way. He is far different in appearance than the motif’s designer John Flanagan intended. OK, tell me about the other quarters.
PH: Some parks really give a lot of specific reference material, and in the Arizona design they really wanted a specific photograph and angle. That park gave us the photographs, so we felt confident about reproducing the image. That one was from a very specific vantage point. I also did Mount Hood [Oregon], and they gave us almost no references, so we had to come up with some images on our own. The one I used was a geological survey image that was copyright free, of Mount Hood. I also got to sculpt the Yosemite quarter, although I did not do the design; my colleague Joe Menna did that.
QDB: So he designed it in sketch form and gave the sketch to you?
PH: That’s correct. I sculpted the Gettysburg (Pennsylvania) quarter, which I really enjoyed. There has been some criticism about having a landscape on such a tiny coin, from various people. I think one of the criticisms is that these landscapes become like a painting on a little coin and you really can’t see it too well. But for the Gettysburg I tried to get as much dynamic sculpture into that little quarter to make that landscape pop off the surface as much as I could. I have an interest, an affinity, for these landscapes, so I am glad I got to do that one. I did not design Gettysburg; that was done by AIP artist Joel Iskowitz. The next one I sculpted was Chaco Culture [New Mexico], designed by Donna Weaver. She is no longer at the Mint, but she is an AIP artist designer who is very successful.
QDB: Any more quarters in your list of accomplishments?
PH: For the previous quarter program, the 50 state quarters, I was able to sculpt one of the last in the series, the Oklahoma quarter, the scissortail flycatcher bird, which was designed by AIP artist Susan Gamble. I also sculpted the Northern Mariana Islands quarter that was designed by AIP artist Richard Masters.
QDB: You realize that you and other sculptor engravers are part of posterity. This means forever. Unlike a medal, a coin gets listed in permanent reference books. Medals are great but they can be forgotten, but these coins will last forever so you are forever enshrined in the pantheon of American engravers. If I were an engraver that would be a great distinction. I would rather design one coin than 27 medals. There are several medalists like Mr. MacMonnies, who did many, many medals years ago but never did a legal tender coin, so few numismatists have ever heard of him and he is not memorialized in A Guide Book of United States Coins, the reference book everyone uses. Chester Beach, on the other hand, did coins and medals, and of course, Saint-Gaudens. Have you ever been to the Saint-Gaudens’ site in New Hampshire.
PH: It’s funny. This is very coincidental. I have not been there in the summer but last weekend I attended a funeral for my uncle who lived in New Hampshire, very close to the Saint-Gaudens Site. So I was up in New Hampshire this past weekend and I drove by the site but of course it’s not open in the wintertime.
QDB: The curator is Henry Duffy. He’s a heck of a nice guy. He and the staff love Saint-Gaudens sculpture, so some time you should give him a call and go up and go through it.
PH: It’s something I have always wanted to do.
QDB: Going back to Chocorua. Tell me about the computer versus pen and ink sketches. How do you create a design these days?
PH: We use Photoshop, which is typically thought of as photo editing software, but you can also draw in Photoshop and this gives you a lot of design flexibility. So we design in Photoshop.
QDB: Do you have a stylus, or how do you do that?
PH: What we have is a Wacom Cintiq monitor, which is an interactive screen you can draw directly onto with the Wacom pen. The brush stroke gets immediately recorded in Photoshop.
QDB: So you have a pen, and if you want to do a tree branch you sketch it in on a screen by pushing on it with a pen.
PH: Yes, you draw it like a normal drawing, except that you are drawing on a screen and using Photoshop as your input program.
QDB: Do you save any of your earlier ideas or do they get erased as you go along?
PH: Oh no, that’s the great thing about it. You can save infinite variations on these designs, and you will never lose anything as long as it’s saved to your computer.
QDB: You created the sketch of Mount Chocorua and then you were told, OK, you won. What happened, step by step, after that?
PH: When I met you here at the Mint last August I showed you a clay. That’s what I do first. I print out a transparency of my drawing, a piece of film that I can see through. This is used as a guide for creating the low relief sculpture in clay. For the “America the Beautiful: quarters, I use an 8-inch diameter coin basin blank which has been machined out of a high density foam called REN. This is an exact upscale of the coin basin. I sculpt the image in a hard, waxlike clay on this surface.
QDB: How long did it take for you to do that?
PH: The clay stage takes maybe a week and a half. And then when I get to a point where I can’t go any further in the clay, I cast plaster over the top of that and I refine the surface in the negative plaster. Then that gets cast into a positive plaster, and that gets refined further, and I do that about two times. I cast one negative, one positive, a second negative, and the second positive is usually the final. The process of casting back and forth in plaster facilitates the drafting of the sculpture that is so critical for a successful coin.
QDB: Does anyone critique your work or tell you what to do or not to do?
PH: We have an internal review that all of us go through for each design, and then the final plaster model is scanned and converted to a digital sculpture file. At this stage I can make additional changes and further refine the sculpture using 3D software. Rendered images from the 3D digital sculpture are sent down to headquarters [the U.S. Mint office in Washington] and they review the image. So when everything gets the final OK there, that digital sculpture file is converted to tool paths to CNC-cut the master tooling for the quarters. The first reduction is a positive hub, and that is used to create master dies.
QDB: Do you review the master tooling and the dies? Do they bring this to you and say “Hey Phebe, here it is. What do you think?” Or is it out of your hands by then?
PH: It’s a little out of my hands. If there are any changes that need to be made at that point we go back to the digital file, make any changes in software and then recut the steel. Our scanning and micro-milling technology is so exacting, the fidelity is so fantastic that there is almost never a problem with regard to the fidelity of the cut steel to the original sculpture. Changes we do make are usually related to coining problems like relief height and draft angles.
QDB: Are there any trial strikings or anything? Does anyone hand you an early impression?
PH: Yes. There are trial strikes.
QDB: What happens to those? All the Coin World readers are going to want to know that.
PH: That’s a really good question what happens to them. I am not sure whether they get put into an archive or whether they get destroyed.
QDB: Could you find out for me and email me? The Smithsonian would probably like to have some.
PH: I’ll try to get an answer for you.
[This was done through Tom Jurkowsky and Michael White, the latter sending an image of such a strike. At present the policy is to destroy them, so as not to create numismatic rarities.]
QDB: Now the plaster you have. What happens to that?
PH: The final plaster is called the master, and that gets archived.
QDB: What about the thing [clay model] you showed me that was sort of green — what happened to that? It was sort of neat.
PH: I happen to have the very clay that I started on for that quarter. I don’t know why I kept it. The original clay models are usually not kept because the sculpture gets greatly improved in the plaster stages.
QDB: Can you take it home and sell it?
PH: No, I can’t do that.
QDB: If you create something can you take a sketch or anything and profit from it?
PH: No, not at all. That’s strictly forbidden.
QDB: As far as one of the plasters go, maybe the New Hampshire State Historical Society might like that if it is just going to be filed in a room somewhere. I know Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones pretty well and used to know her predecessor, the late Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro. They were both good acquaintances of mine and helped me a lot with research for certain of my books. Both of them had in their offices a lot of plaster sculptures looking like oversize Necco wafers against each other on the shelf. There was no particular attention paid to them and I hope they didn’t get destroyed.
PH: No, the master plasters are kept. Now that we have the digital CNC system, though, it’s not as important because what is used to cut the coin is the digital file, and that is securely backed up and will always be available if there is any issue. So, I don’t know how important these plasters are anymore, but we do keep the final ones.
QDB: When did you see your first struck New Hampshire coin?
PH: A couple of weeks ago when they were available in the gift shop here.
QDB: Did they give you one?
PH: I bought one. They don’t give you free coins.
QDB: I guess the Mint doesn’t give samples. This has been a very productive interview.
PH: I do have a funny story if you have the time, regarding this quarter. My mother went to camp in the 1940s up there, on Lake Ossipee some miles to the east of Lake and Mount Chocorua, and she was playing around at camp up there on the lakes.
QDB: What was the name of the camp?
PH: Camp Winnemont.
QDB: Winnemont was owned by the Bentley family. Is your mother still living?
QDB: This camp was owned by the Bentley family. That was a girls’ camp and then the boys’ camp was Camp Wyanoke here in Wolfeboro. They had two camps. I will send you some pictures of Camp Winnemont from my collection of New Hampshire historical images.
PH: It’s funny. I just found my mother in pictures on a web site of this camp and she’s a 17-year-old.
QDB: It’s a small world and, I hear tell, there are only 200 people in the world and they all meet each other! I will email you tomorrow when I get back after the ceremony just to send you some pictures for the heck of it. Where can Coin World readers learn more about your professional accomplishments?
PH: That’s all online at the U.S. Mint website.
QDB: This has been a great interview.
PH: Thank you very much. ■