US Coins

Artistic Infusion Program artist highlights Wall Street Bourse

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.


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.

And yet the discipline of doing coin design is extremely satisfying, ironically because it is so constricting. If you can create something that’s new or has resonance, something that’s meaningful or beautiful, or all of the above… and if it’s received and conveys a message that might shed new light on a subject, or a piece of history, that’s very satisfying. So I guess if you twisted my arm, I’d probably say I favor designing in black and white for coins and medals, and it’s become my work.


Which was the first congressional gold medal you designed?

JI: My first was for the Women’s Air Force Pilots of World War II. These are 1940’s women and they had a wonderful sense of themselves. They were breaking tradition because they loved to fly and it was an opportunity to serve their country. And just as with the male end of the equation, when people go into service there are many reasons. Sometimes it’s patriotism, sometimes it’s adventure, sometime it’s practicality. In this case, it was all those things plus the lure of flight. And to the women, their adoration for flight was paramount while they were helping their country at a crucial time. They ferried aircraft here and there so we wouldn’t have to use men from the front, and did this under fire sometimes and with loss of life. These were heroic deeds especially when the Army was experimenting with jet engines which women flew as test pilots and were exceptional. And they didn’t miss a trick about being feminine.  They always had their lipstick and their hair in place, and shared a great camaraderie. Going to Washington to see them receive this highest recognition that Congress bestows was very rewarding and then to meet them was wonderful. I designed their medal using a 1940s looking woman and this was my first congressional gold medal.

And then there were the Nisei Soldiers, another story of tremendous injustice. To be Japanese and to be on the West Coast in this country after the attack on Pearl Harbor was to be imprisoned. And that’s what happened. When they were finally freed and pressed into service, they served with distinction and were unparalleled in the number of awards and medals they won on the battlefield. Finally, they were nationally honored by the congressional gold medal in 2011. So that was my second.

And doesn’t the New Frontier gold medal hold a special significance for you?                     

JI: Yes, the New Frontier gold medal was given to the Apollo astronauts and to John Glenn. John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, and the Apollo astronauts of Apollo 11, the first human beings to set foot on the lunar surface, a satellite of our planet and another world. It was 1969 in the summer and a very important time because the country was torn over the Vietnam War. This was something overarching in the grand pantheon of human experience.  It was JFK and we fulfilled his wish within the desired 10 years. It brought back the glory of what we did in World War II, the Greatest Generation, our “can do” spirit. Put a man on the Moon! And we returned to earth using technology that’s much less sophisticated than our current smart phones. Neil Armstrong in the Rotunda of the Capitol held up his cell phone and said, “This is 30 times more sophisticated than the computer systems we used to go to the Moon and back.”

How did you go about designing the New Frontier gold medal?

JI: When designing any project for the U.S. Mint, but especially for a congressional medal, my very first action is to read and reread the enacted language of the law in order to fully understand the scope and sense of what Congress finds as their reasons for conferring its highest civilian honor on any group or individual. In the instance of the New Frontier, Congress makes compellingly clear why this distinction and recognition is so well deserved. An appreciation for these particular citations which outline the history and accomplishments of the astronauts is instrumental for me to develop a sense of the breadth of the recipients’ contributions, which hopefully will be reflected in the artwork.

I had gone down to NASA once at their invitation and another time as a guest of the Air Force. I saw launches of two space shuttles during 10 days at Cape Canaveral. I was getting schooled on what an intense effort this was by a city of engineers and workers. This informed my designs and imparted an authenticity to the artwork, which pays homage to our brave men and women who venture into space. 

I got the assignment to do the New Frontier medal for the Apollo astronauts, which involved four portraits and two separate missions, John Glenn’s orbits preceding the Apollo. Part of what I do is narrative art and involves momentarily or for weeks at a time being knowledgeable about things that are unknown to a lot of people. For instance I had three jugate portraits of the astronauts looking up with a backdrop of the Moon, and then I had John Glenn at the bottom orbiting the earth with his Friendship 7. How did it go into orbit, I asked myself? Was he going east to west around the globe, or west to east? These are challenges of design.

These guys are very competent scientists and engineers in addition to being astronauts, so they are going to be looking at this stuff. So before I take a pencil, I have to know how Friendship 7 looks and goes into orbit, which requires looking through the NASA documents. What I did see were diagrammatic sketches of how booster rockets fall off and how Glenn was sitting in the capsule. He was actually sitting backwards around the globe and they wanted to omit a window. John Glenn insisted on a control stick saying, “We are not spam in a can.  We are not monkeys or dogs. We’re pilots. We want a control stick and we want a window for orientation.” It turned out that it saved the mission and John Glenn’s life, because he needed to override the primitive computer systems which were pretty terrific but they failed a couple of times. The retro rockets would get it at exactly the right angle for reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, because if the angle of incidence isn’t exactly right you will burn to a cinder. He had to do that himself and one time in orbit he had to take the control stick and turn the capsule around so that he could look out the window. So I am learning all this and trying to get this job for the medal in 2010. I got all these things right and they selected my design for obverse and reverse. I am over the Moon about this! 

The ceremony was at the Rotunda of the Capitol, which is the inner sanctum of our democracy. And there on the proscenium were John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, the first earthling to plant a human foot on another world! So there was this incredible ceremony and at the end, the Mint’s lead sculptor/engraver Don Everhart steered me into the reception in the Caucus Room with the families of the astronauts. I got to shake everyone’s hand. I did go over to John Glenn and I said, “Senator Glenn, I must tell you that in designing the medal, I was trying to get the pitch and yaw and attitude of Friendship 7 correct and I came across the crumbled documents in NASA’s archives and the pilot’s flight report, which was perfect.” We talked about the fire-flies that surrounded his ship, that to this day they haven’t figured out – probably ionospheric disturbances due to the heat and radiation of the solar flare event. Then, the woman who is overseeing everything says, “Senator, we have to move on.” And John Glenn replies, “Hold on, that’s the man who designed the medal and we’re talking here.” This is a scene out of Tom Wolfe! And just as in the movie, the pilot spoke to Werner von Braun and the NASA higher-ups:“You give us a window, we’re pilots…”  He went around the globe three times…he turned it around…the nerve and the guts and the faith that it took to do that. I am going to meet him again, he’s 94, and do something about him and Neil Armstrong – the only person, he told me, he has any envy for.

Are there any new medals on the horizon?

JI: Yes, there are a couple of very exciting medals which will be issued soon, but I am not at liberty to speak about them until they are officially unveiled.


Please tell us why you are especially fond of the stories surrounding the Lincoln penny.

JI: Well, I have a number of stories about that humble cent. In fact they all start with my friend Constantin Marinescu, former president of the New York Numismatic Club, who in 2010 invited me to a meeting to hear Robert Hoge, then Curator of American Coins and Currency at the American Numismatic Society. While at the meeting I noticed a group photograph from 1909 with Victor David Brenner among the members. Victor Brenner was known to me as designer of the obverse of the Lincoln cent – the longest-running design in U.S. Mint history. Brenner was a Lithuanian immigrant, die-sinker, engraver, sculptor, and medalist, and he had a passion for Abraham Lincoln.

In the absence of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Brenner was Theodore Roosevelt’s chosen artist to design the Panama Canal Service medal, and in 1908 he was sketching President Roosevelt for the obverse at Sagamore Hill, the summer White House in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Brenner had the presence of mind to set his plaque of Lincoln’s profile on the table and share his reverence for Lincoln with TR, who before taking the oath of office had been given a ring with a strand of Lincoln’s hair embedded in the ring’s amber by his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., who had served in Lincoln’s administration. At this famous Brenner-Roosevelt sitting, the two conspired to put an American president on a circulating coin for the first time in American history, despite the admonition of George Washington who told Hamilton and the others not to put his image on our circulating coins: “You’ll make me a sovereign and in this American experiment, the people are sovereign. So we must use allegorical figures – liberty, justice, and beautiful women portraying our ideals.” So TR, contrary to prevailing wisdom and historic protocol, made sure that Lincoln was put on the 1909 cent, making it the most reproduced piece of art in history.

Fast forward a mere hundred years and yours truly gets to submit a design candidate for the reverse of the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial cent, phase three of four – Lincoln’s professional years in Illinois – which I did. And one of my candidates was a picture of Lincoln standing and speechifying in front of the Illinois State House...the backdrop for some pretty impressive speeches like the famous “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

My design found favor with one of the national review boards. It’s a challenging process to get a design selected. You’re competing against many design artists in the AIP and the Mint sculptor/engravers, who are among the most accomplished designers and relief sculptors in the world; hence many designs never see the light of day. And there are numerous hurdles to clear: historical accuracy, coinability, aesthetic integrity, and so forth. Plus the input of erudite national review boards that meet and give recommendations to the Mint.

And further to the Lincoln stories, the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial cent so thrilled and inspired me that I created an aquarelle of the Brenner/Roosevelt 1908 sitting. The National Parks Service has faithfully restored Sagamore Hill as it was during TR’s presidency, so I was able to visit his library, capture the portrait gallery with Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.’s portrait dominating the wall behind TR, and place Brenner’s plaque of Lincoln beside Brenner’s right elbow. Brenner’s fondness for Lincoln prompted him to copyright a Lincoln medal design as early as 1907, producing several variations.

Now the wheel has come full circle. Our old family encyclopedia here in my studio opens automatically to the page with Mathew Brady’s photograph of Abraham Lincoln, and not far away, in my flat files, is the first oil painting I ever did, from that photo…on a tiny little canvas board…of Lincoln!   


What do you think about having women on paper currency? You have already put 11 First Ladies on coins in the First Spouse series.

JI: Including wonderful women like Edith Roosevelt, Grace Coolidge, and a five-dollar gold coin, very rare, with Mary Lincoln on the reverse, bringing books and flowers to soldiers in the field at make-shift Civil War hospitals. Frances Cleveland, Eliza Johnson, Julia Tyler “the beautiful rose of Long Island.” Elizabeth Monroe brought a lot of beautiful furniture and objects back from France, and Dolly Madison. She was quite something, personally saving historic cabinet papers and the priceless Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington as the British set the White House ablaze. Plus she got me admission to the East Room where I got to see my Dolly Madison design on an easel.

According to some, although the ladies have made it onto coins, there is some dispute about putting women on paper money.

JI: I can only speak as a citizen and as someone who reveres women. Why not honor a female on our bank notes, someone like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth? I’m totally in favor of that. And why wouldn’t Eleanor Roosevelt be a good choice?

To what extent do you think coinage and numismatics reflect a country’s culture – political, artistic, social?

JI: Medals are conferred upon highly regarded individuals who accomplish great deeds. Think of the congressional medals plus all the coins and medals throughout history. They picture people who are in power, who lay down the laws that any civilization follows and is willing to march and fight for. Our coinage displays qualities like liberty, justice, honor, achievement, the common good. These overarching human concerns are often represented by allegory. But then again you also have the historical side that coinage reflects – each and every empire, kings and rulers whose portraits are represented on coinage. Because the coinage and medals are public art, they’re epic art. They portray the highest ideals and aspirations of a culture. The coinage is the emblematic artwork of those precepts. Often it’s done as large public art in sculptures, but it’s just as epic on the small canvas of a coin. And even more powerful because it has to be reduced to such a small scale and yet carry such an incredibly potent message. 

As already discussed, coinage is a very interesting entity because it’s art that travels among the populace uncontrolled. It’s put out there and goes through the banking system and then the usual flow of currency. And I am honored to put my art on these objects. How fascinating that this art moves among the people, compared to art that’s in a museum where people go and visit. My art visits the people and there’s no telling how it will move around. So it’s really a very vital form of communication. Each coin and medal is a repository of the history of any given culture or era. It’s history and it’s also an ambassador in a way, because it carries a message and shows a culture’s finest or most moving moments. 

It’s got one other great thing going for it. Buildings, architecture, paintings, sculpture can be destroyed. These little things are amazing survivors. They’ll go down to the bottom of the ocean and stay in pristine shape for 700 years. It seems that every few months another great discovery is made of a Spanish galleon or vessel with ancient coinage. So the coins are incredible repositories of history, great ambassadors with memories of forebears.

And what about the international reach of your work?

JI: Countless U.S. coins circle the globe and are highly prized in many cultures. It’s an honor for me to be part of a team that is tasked with creating these numismatic ambassadors of our national heritage.

I am also very proud to be the only non-United Kingdom subject to have created a circulating coin with the portrait of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Isn’t there presently a French coin in the works?

JI: Yes. I’m developing a design inspired by the Three Graces that includes the Marianne. I envision it as a celebration of great nations that love liberty. It would be another reason to revisit France and I would love to do that.

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Joel Iskowitz’s talk “Designing Congressional Gold Medals: An Artist’s Perspective” will take place in the Main Gallery of the Museum of American Finance on Oct. 23, 2015, at 2 p.m., as a feature of the 5th Wall Street Collectors Bourse – a numismatic event for lovers of financial history. At the Bourse, dealers will sell, trade and tell stories about their coins, stock and bond certificates, paper money, medals, autographs, ephemera and other collectibles. Archives International Auctions will again hold an auction related to financial memorabilia on Saturday, Oct. 24. The Museum is admission free during the Bourse, so visitors can enjoy the show, exhibits, talks and workshop in one visit. We expect a wide and diverse audience.

Numismatist Thomas Tesoriero: "The Twelve Caesars on Gold Coins" Oct. 22, 2 p.m.

Artist Joel Iskowitz: "Designing Congressional Gold Medals: An Artist's Perspective" Oct. 23, 2 p.m.

Dealer Scott Winslow, International Bond and Share Society Breakfast Talk, Oct. 24, 9 a.m. (light breakfast available).

Inspector Collector Harley Spiller and Award-winning Dealer Declan Hurley, “The Secret Life of C-Notes:A Workshop for Teens Who Like Money”, Saturday, Oct. 24, 11 a.m. to noon, in the Museum Auditorium.

Collector/dealer Lawrence Schuffman, “American History on Our Money” Oct. 24, 2 p.m.

Show hours: Thursday, Oct. 22, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. 
                  Friday, Oct. 23, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 
                  Saturday, Oct. 24, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Auction: 10:30 a.m.)
Show info:  or 203-292-6819
Auction info:  or 201-944-4800

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