Virginia Besas interviews artist Joel Iskowitz in press release from the Wall Street Collectors Bourse:
Joel Iskowitz: 'The Anonymously Famous JI'
One of the highlights of the 5th Wall Street Collectors Bourse will be a talk by Joel Iskowitz on “Designing Congressional Gold Medals: An Artist’s Perspective” at the Museum of American Finance on Friday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Mr. Iskowitz looks back on more than three decades of creating unparalleled artworks displayed in the Pentagon, the Capitol and the White House. He’s an active United States Air Force artist with oils in the USAF permanent collection. Twice invited to document Space Shuttle missions with artwork on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center Museum, he is the designer of some of our country’s most treasured congressional gold medals, including the New Frontier gold medal presented to Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Mercury astronaut John Glenn in the Rotunda of the Capitol on Nov. 16, 2011.
His first congressional gold medal was designed for the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots of WWII, followed by the Nisei Soldiers, and more recently the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 – his congressional gold medals total over a dozen. Published countless times, with artworks in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the New York Historical Society and the Paratroopers Historical Society in France, Mr. Iskowitz has also received the National Oceanic and Philatelic Society citation for his contributions to space philately. His obverse design for the Louis Braille silver dollar flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its mission to service the Hubble telescope. And this is the short list of his accomplishments. Joel Iskowitz lives in Upstate New York and balances a demanding artistic career with a supportive marriage.
In this interview he discusses his progression from being “anonymously famous” to one of America’s most celebrated artists and medallic designers.
ON YOUR TRIP TO 'DESIGNER OF MEDALS AND COINS'
How did you arrive at coin and medal designing after a start in medical illustration?
JI: It was really serendipitous. My mother, appreciative of my artistic talent as a youngster, wanted me to be a doctor. However, soon after I entered the High School of Music and Art, it became apparent that was not going to happen, but I did quite well in scientific drawing – the exactness and precision required. At the time there was a group of medically trained painters. Frank Netter, a New York surgeon and famous medical illustrator, was inspirational and also the example of Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia. Both combined scientific training with the exactitude of anatomical drawing. I always preferred realism to purely imaginative abstract painting.
What came next?
JI: After my work in etching and engraving, I moved on to stints as teacher, portrait artist in San Francisco, album cover designer, and book illustrator. All the work was highly realistic and supported by extensive research on period history. It was good preparation for my philatelic and numismatic work.
What made you switch to coins and philately?
JI: It’s just one of those strange developments! I had lots of work designing stamps and I was quite happy in this métier, but when the fees started shrinking I decided to spread my wings. There was a call on the Internet for artists for the U.S. Mint. On the last day, I submitted something, and “Congratulations, welcome to the new Artistic Infusion Program (AIP)”was the message that followed – and that was in 2005.
The design I submitted was for the reverse of the Texas State quarter dollar and was a kind of pyramid with Texan symbols – the five-pointed star and an armadillo. And they liked it. I had to write a narrative of why I thought I was cut out for this work and all of a sudden I became a U.S. Mint artist. Because of that designation, I wound up being the only American outside contractor with this many mintings. I’m up to nearly 50 accepted designs! I’m so fortunate and proud to have found work which I truly feel is a calling.
And this speaks to you being “anonymously famous”?
JI: Yes, the phrase had a kind of resonance because with the coins and the stamps too, nobody knew who I was. Stamps don’t even have my initials. With coins you have initials, but only coin collectors and people who love numismatics know who I am. For the rest of the world mostly…I’m rather anonymous.
With your many honors from Washington, the Smithsonian, and your murals on Air Force bases, you’re all over!
JI: Yes, sometimes I think at least the work has had wide exposure, which is very gratifying. But when it comes to circulating coins, I picture them as little platelets in the circulation system of society. They actually move in a way which cannot be controlled. They go and visit the people, compared to people making a pilgrimage to a museum to see art, having a guard buzz them in. With coins, it’s the art that’s doing the heavy lifting and travelling to the people. And some people are very knowledgeable, as with numismatists who can tell you every last detail, while other people don’t realize anything about the process and are completely unaware of what they are looking at. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some effect. So it’s very gratifying to think that my art work has such wide reach, though a majority don’t know who I am and don’t even know that it’s an artist that creates these miniature works of art.
Of the disciplines you practice, illustration, oil painting, philately, coin and medallic design, which do you prefer?
JI: I love them all and I’ve been doing them all. I think that oil painting is the culmination of art, but I don’t do it often. I’ve done it recently for my Air Force murals because I have a lot of freedom and control. Those oil paintings combine composition, draftsmanship and color.