Interview With Joel Iskowitz: An American Narrative Artist and Coin Designer

Read an interview with American Narrative Artist and Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz!  Joel Iskowitz is one of the most prolific and accomplished American artists working today.  He has created countless artworks from coins, stamps, and medals to paintings, album covers, and book and magazine illustrations.

Read an interview with American Narrative Artist and Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz! 

Joel Iskowitz is one of the most prolific and accomplished American artists working today.  He has created countless artworks from coins, stamps, and medals to paintings, album covers, and book and magazine illustrations.

His work has been displayed everywhere from the White House, United States Capitol, and the Pentagon to NASA, the Smithsonian and other major museums around the world, and the Air Force Art program. It has even flown in space and been presented to astronauts. He has also received numerous awards and honors for his work and in 2011 was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Hunter College, where he graduated in 1968 with a degree in fine arts.

Starting in the 1970s he began working as a portrait artist and illustrator, creating a music album and later book and magazine covers, and then moved to designing stamps, of which he has created more than 2,000 for over 40 countries.  He has also designed coins for other countries and private mints.  

In 2005 he applied for and became a member of the United States Mint’s Artistic Infusion program of artists who create designs for United States coins and medals. As of 2016, he has designed over 50 such pieces such as four reverses of the America the Beautiful quarter series; five for the American Platinum Eagle series; 11 for the First Spouse $10 gold series; and four for the Presidential $1-coin series, plus many of the most popular commemoratives of recent decades like the 2012 Star-Spangled Banner and 2008 Bald Eagle silver dollars.

Iskowitz considers himself to be a narrative artist and sees his artistic endeavors as being in service of the subject matter. As he said in a 2014 lecture, the purpose of his art is “to distill and advance the [subject’s] story.”

For these reasons, his designs and other artistic creations produce highly realistic and accurate images of the particular subject matter.  Achieving this level of realism requires not only years of training and experience but also a great deal of research and study of the topic, which may include anything from reading the authorizing legislation for a coin or medal to visiting the National Archives, Library of Congress, a presidential library, or other location.

Last July Iskowitz signed a deal with NGC to autograph certification labels exclusively for this company.  

To learn more about the work he has done and his approach to designing coins and medals, I recently interviewed the artist.

Louis Golino – Will you be signing NGC labels for coins that you designed for the United States Mint, or will you be signing labels for other coins?  Also, have you started signing the labels yet?

Joel Iskowitz – No, while I am an active contractor with the United States Mint, my signature labels will accompany only coins that are not my design, or coins that I have designed for other countries or private sector mints.

Yes, I have begun signing labels. My future bouts with writer’s cramp are assured!

Louis Golino – What were your favorite coin or medal projects for the United States Mint?

Joel Iskowitz – That is a difficult one to answer, as each United States Mint program for coins or medals has a great deal of historical significance and resonance. Additionally, I have been so fortunate to have had many of my designs selected.

That said, I have to cite the humble Lincoln cent (I designed the reverse of the 2009 Bicentennial Cent, professional years in Illinois) as one of my favorites, as Lincoln is universally revered and beloved as our greatest president.

Numismatically speaking, it also is thrilling for me to have a design on the reverse of Victor David Brenner’s famed profile of the great man. The fact that the Lincoln cent is the most reproduced object of art in human history is also very gratifying to me.

Two other circulating coin designs that are in a sense, companion pieces, come to mind; the 2011 America the Beautiful Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania quarter dollar, and the 2016 Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota quarter dollar, because of their connection to our 16th president.

The Gettysburg-Lincoln association is well known, but not many know that TR’s father served in the Lincoln administration, or that the 26th president sat for VDB at the Summer White House at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay NY, for his portrait to appear on the Panama Canal Service Medal.

The two men (VDB & TR) shared a reverence and affection for Lincoln and this moment was the birth of the precedent-breaking Lincoln cent: the first United States circulating coin featuring an individual person as opposed to an allegorical figure.

As far as other designs I am particularly proud of, I would mention the 2011 $5 Medal of Honor Gold Coin (reverse) and the 2012 Star-Spangled Banner Silver Dollar reverse.

Of the Platinum Eagle series, I am exceptionally content with the Preamble to the Constitution series and my 2013 reverse design which attempts to symbolically convey the theme, “to promote the general welfare”. I felt that one struck the right combination of a meaningful interpretation of the concept along with all the visual elements relating the message within a well-balanced compositional structure.

Then there are the Congressional Gold Medals. Along with the Presidential Medals of Freedom, Arts and Humanities, they are our nation’s highest form of civilian recognition. Each one challenges the designer with interpreting epic stories of great heroism and sacrifice.

I refuse to select a “favorite” child in that category, but if I had to, it would be two of the 17 designs I have been fortunate enough to have had selected, the New Frontier (obverse and reverse) CGM and the Fallen Heroes of 9/11 NY, obverse CGM.

Louis Golino – I personally think of your particular artistic style as similar to realism and in some cases neoclassicism, and Michael Miles Standish recently described it as narrative art. Can you describe what you consider to be the main artistic influences on your work such as artists or schools of art?

Joel Iskowitz – There is a tremendous range of artists that I have admired and that inform my approach. Specifically, besides the classical masterworks of Ancient Greece and Rome, I have always admired the great masters of the Renaissance, such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as the great Baroque artists such as Rembrandt. In one’s lifetime as an artist, there is a visual and spiritual conversation that connects all artists in a colloquy that defies temporal, national, and cultural barriers.

I also proudly spent my early professional years as an illustrator, a term that has been used in an unfair and pejorative way. Many of the great illustrators of the Golden Age of American Illustration have been an inspiration to me.

An illustrator illuminates the subject at hand. He or she has a job to do. The art is in service of the story. It is “art-work…not art for art’s sake.

I always call myself a narrative artist. In plain English, I tell stories with images…that is my duty. Do I want to employ the highest aesthetic standards possible? Certainly…but I intend never to let aesthetic theory or stylistic manifestos obscure the history or the subject.

The art must be in service of the subject matter. There is a good case to be made that Michelangelo and Rembrandt were divine illustrators on a grand scale. Surely, they created masterworks of the highest artistic merit, but their inspiration and efforts were driven by the narratives.

Louis Golino – Do you collect coins or medals besides the ones you designed, and if so, which ones?

Joel Iskowitz – Other than collecting Lincoln cents as a youth, I’ve never really been a serious collector. I’ve accumulated a working knowledge of numismatic history by studying what I consider to be the most beautiful coinage and medallic art.

Louis Golino – I read that you are the only American who has designed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for a commonwealth coin.  Which coin was that?

Joel Iskowitz – It’s true, the 2015, 2016, and 2017 obverse portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was done for the Commonwealth Mint, UK. It has been minted on many coins for Tristan da Cunha, the tiny remote group of volcanic islands in the South Atlantic (part of St. Helena.) It is a dependency of the UK, whose monarch is Elizabeth II.

My portrait of the Queen also appears on 22ct. gold 2017 issues, honoring the 100th anniversary of the House of Windsor, a 12-sided sovereign, and a gold 5-pound coin with jugate portraits of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, marking their 70th wedding anniversary.

(I imagine there are also Canadian designers that have portrayed Elizabeth II on coinage who live on the North American continent, but to the best of my knowledge, I am the only United States citizen who portrayed a royal on a coin of the British realm.)

What amazed me is that final approval of the portrait came from Buckingham Palace. Yes, I had edits (the British call them amends) and they were requested by Her Majesty the Queen! Never did get an invitation to high tea though!

Louis Golino – Finally, as someone who has designed coins, medals, and stamps for both the United States and other countries, is there something different about preparing designs for your own country?

Joel Iskowitz – Yes. As far as procedure, although I invest about the same effort for research in both my work for other nations and private sector projects as I do for United States Mint programs, the vetting and selection process for the United States Mint is more elaborate and usually requires more paperwork and time.

As far as pride in country, having had the privilege of being a United States Air Force artist, and being witness to our nation’s history from the vantage point of a civilian traveling the globe (from Normandy to the China, India, and Burma theaters of war) with the military has meant a great deal to me and informed many of my military-themed coin and medal designs. It might be interesting to some that although I have thousands of my own photos from many Air Force trips, my first choice for reference pictures, as an inspiration for my military-themed designs, are the historic photos taken during action by staff media pool photographers found in the public domain collections of the Library of Congress or the National Archives, in order to achieve verisimilitude and ring true historically.

Somehow all the best reference photos of re-enactors don’t ever rise to the level of the authenticity required.

I also have been fortunate enough to witness two Space Shuttle launches and my experiences with the NASA Art Program impressed me beyond words when contemplating what we Americans can accomplish when we exert our full measure of energy and commitment.

I am certain my experiences at Kennedy Space Center found their way into the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal designs.

Another very gratifying aspect of creating artwork for the United States is that there is a great deal of goodwill established with many of the recipient groups, whether they are representatives of commemorative coin programs or Congressional Gold Medal recipient groups.

I have maintained ties with such entities as the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots, the Borinqueneers, the Nisei Soldiers of WW II, and the Filipino Veterans of WWII and have collaborated on a pro bono basis to further their initiatives. Those relationships are priceless.

As far as the emotional aspect, nothing compares to the honor of having one of your designs selected to become the numismatic ambassador of our national history and ethos.

Our coinage is emblematic of our most treasured beliefs and aspirations. The notion that these little metallic agents, bearers of epic tales, circulate freely among the people, is quintessentially democratic.

The fact that they will speak to the ages of who we were, are, and hope to be as Americans, is stirring to me.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to add my voice to this extraordinary American dialogue.

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