Coin Artists — America’s Storytellers

Local artist Matt Swaim is chosen for the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program

“Become a part of history … The designs on United States coins and medals are more than simple illustrations on small metal discs: they are expressions of the values, aspirations, and shared heritage of our Nation. They serve as illustrations to the world of the essence and story of America.” ~ usmint.gov

Matt Swaim’s artwork and initials may be engraved on a coin that you will hold in your hand in the future. Swaim is a sought-after local artist and owner of the Jacksonville-based company Studio-Swaim. He prolifically creates architectural and traditional illustrations for clients worldwide using art media ranging from digital tablet to graphite and colored pencil. His work has garnered prestigious awards and been published in numerous books. 

In early fall of 2018, the United States Mint opened a Call for Artists seeking to join their Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), an elite pool of twenty-seven illustrators and designers who have created the artwork for the nation’s coins and medals since its inception in 2003. Coin programs such as the fifty states quarters, the U.S. Mint’s most successful coin program in history, and the America the Beautiful coins have been designed by AIP artists. Swaim’s portfolio submission made the initial cut and he was invited to participate in an actual upcoming coin and medal design campaign. A couple of months later, he was notified that he was among those selected to the program. Now, as one of the 14 new AIP artists under contract with the U.S. Mint, he will be proffered jobs for prospective project designs.

As an induction into the program, Swaim and the other AIP artists attended a symposium last June, during which they learned the ins and outs of numismatic art and design — the parameters of designing for coins and medals, the entire process from design submission to U.S. Treasury selection, and copyright law information. “On more than one occasion we were reminded about the importance and significance of our work,” says Swaim. “Our art will be on coins and medals that will be studied by cultures far beyond the immediate future. We were privileged to get a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Smithsonian’s coin collection not on display for the general public, some dating back as far as 480 BC. Our work will be around a long time!”

The U.S. Mint’s Call for Artists states that it looks for artists “who can bring innovative perspectives and who can effectively utilize symbolism to create original artwork that successfully conveys a particular subject matter.” These subjects can be complex and can vary with each coin program: some require portraits, others require landscapes, and many, such as the Congressional Gold Medal Program, require images emblematic of an honoree’s life and work. “Artists are expected to distill a program’s design theme to its essence, representing these complicated subjects on a very small palette.”

A piece from Matt Swaim’s illustration portfolio, submitted to the U.S. Mint.

Swaim says the process of illustrating for engraving is new to him, and to most of the new AIP artists. “It’s a learning curve for all of us,” he says. The artist must think three-dimensionally, since their flat illustrations will be translated into a monotone bas relief. They must take into account depth, negative space, and the type of metal that the design will be stamped into. “Our designs are road maps for the engravers and we are in essence learning how to draw that map in their language. It’s tricky because you have to illustrate for form, not shade, shadow, and color,” says Swaim.

“The U.S. Mint is extremely patient in that regard. They know it’s a process that is a little out of the norm for most of us and they are very helpful and understanding,” Swaim continues. “In fact, I just got back the ‘engraver edits’ on the design I’m working on now. This is the first round of reviews a design goes through to check whether it’s coinable, or able to be minted from a technical stand point.”

Swaim says that the artists are provided written design briefs on each project to review over a few days before a conference call design brief where they are provided the specific parameters. Some projects are wide open, allowing the artist more free rein, and some are restrictive, with tighter guidelines set forth by either legislation or the stakeholder. “The designs I have worked on thus far have been somewhere in the middle,” he says, with both required and encouraged elements, along with permission to be creative otherwise.

Read MoreBy Meredith T. Matthews

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