Last year the US Mint announced a new program with a name that sounds like an herbal tea: Artistic Infusion. The goal was to improve the design of US coinage by cultivating a stable of "Master Designers" plus, with an eye toward the next generation, "Associate Designers" at the college and grad school level. The process concluded in early 2004 with the selection of 18 Master and 6 Associate Designers.

Leonard Buckley of Damascus, Maryland was picked as one of those Master Designers. He spoke to the Montgomery County Coin Club [1] on 11 May 2004.

"My life's work has been making money!" Mr. Buckley announced. Buckley is tall, wears his gray hair close-cropped, and is articulate and enthusiastic about his craft. He was born in Brooklyn, New York (which fact, when announced, drew a round of applause from compatriots in the MCCC audience) and spoke with a solid Brooklyn accent, punctuating his talk with broad gestures. Since his youth, Buckley explained, he has been interested in stamps and coins. As a teenager he submitted stamp designs to the United Nations Postal Administration. None was accepted. "You have to get joy out of doing it", Buckley said, of the artistic temperament. "It's inside and it has to come out."

After high school Mr. Buckley applied to work at the American Banknote Company, where he became an apprentice sigillographer and for seven years helped to engrave plates and manage the printing process for stock certificates. In 1967 he transferred to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). The following year he met his wife-to-be and told her, "I make lots of money. The trouble is, I can't keep it!"

At the BEP Mr. Buckley initially designed stamps. He displayed the drawings that he produced for the US minerals commemorative set, and explained some of the important design considerations that went into those stamps. In the 1980s Mr. Buckley began working on modern currency design. He reported that the BEP had tried to introduce multicolored paper money during the Reagan administration and was overruled by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. "But an artist never never throws an idea away," Buckley said. "Like collectors, we keep ideas for future use."

In addition to his work at the BEP, Mr. Buckley designed First Day Covers and commemorative medals for private companies such as the Danbury Mint. He exhibited an example: the Commodore Matthew Perry medal honoring the opening (by force) of Japan to international trade. "At least half of the design process is research," Buckley noted. For example, before creating the Perry piece he had to investigate issues such as "What kind of ship did he sail to Japan on?" and "What was the shape of his epaulettes?" The results of his researches were pencil sketches --- Mr. Buckley's preferred medium --- which the Danbury Mint then used to hand-engrave the dies that struck the medal.

In the 1990s Mr. Buckley produced candidate designs for the World Cup USA (1994) coinage --- not selected --- and for the James Madison (obverse) & Montpelier (reverse) $1 coin --- not selected --- as well as the Bill of Rights $5 coin --- not selected. Buckley was good-humored about the process of coin design. "You have to understand, no matter what you do in art, it may or may not be accepted. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

But Mr. Buckley preserved his sketches from his early projects, and when the US Mint announced the Artistic Infusion program he sent some of them in as part of his portfolio, along with new designs. These led to his successful application for "Master Designer" status.

Mr. Buckley discussed some of the practical factors that go into stamp and coin design. The big challenge, he said, was to make something miniature and yet still "readable". Numismatists may enjoy studying coins under magnification, but most people most of the time just want to quickly and accurately recognize the denomination of a piece of money. Postage stamps likewise need to have bold, sharp designs to achieve a visual impact in a small area. Both coins and stamps also must be economical to produce.

"It does a designer no good to create something that can't be manufactured," Buckley commented. So physical constraints imposed by the minting process often affect a coin's artistic design. For instance, Mr. Buckley said, on a coin "Don't make your stars too pointed --- that will cause die cracks." Similarly, letters can't be placed too close to the rim of a coin, and some styles of lettering are vulnerable to filling-in or expansion as dies wear.

Early American coins may seem crude in some ways, but they have a "nobility of design", Mr. Buckley noted. His hope is to bring some of that nobility to modern coinage, perhaps by including traditional and classical elements in the artwork. Among the key areas to pay attention to in coin design, Mr. Buckley suggested, are balance (the relationship among features) and negative space (the empty area around and between features). Buckley also observed that the Connecticut commemorative state quarter, which "everybody loves", was successful because of the unity and readability of its design, featuring the Charter Oak. The Florida quarter, in contrast, has three separate elements which many feel "are just there --- they aren't connected to each other."

"The problem," Mr. Buckley explained, "is that some of these state quarters have a great political background" that has tended to dominate their design selection process, to the detriment of their artistic merit. Now, Buckley reported, the US Mint has decided to request a narrative description from the state governors or their designees, rather than drawings. The question "What do you want to say about your state?" may, when answered in words, result in a superior final design.

In the near future, Mr. Buckley said, he plans to travel to the western US to see some of the terrain that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled over. The Jefferson nickel will feature on its reverse four designs during 2004 and 2005: the recently-released Louisiana Purchase motif, followed by a keelboat representation, and then two additional but not yet selected patterns. Perhaps the Mint's new stable of Master Designers can offer some inputs to those coins.

Besides being a good influence on the State Quarter design process, the Artistic Infusion Program also may eventually produce new designs for the Lincoln cent (first issued in 1909), the Jefferson nickel (produced since 1938) and the Roosevelt dime (originally minted in 1946).

(for more information on the Artistic Infusion program see [2] and other US Mint web pages; for images of coin designs by Daniel Carr, creator of the New York and Rhode Island state quarters, see [3]; for an article by Michele Orzano in Coin World re the state quarter design process see "Inconsistency dogs designer credit - Not all 'designers' of State quarters gain recognition" [4]; and see also NumismaticRamblings (7 Aug 2000), TheCoin (5 Mar 2002), MontgomeryCountyCoinClub (20 May 2003), ... )

TopicRecreation - TopicSociety - TopicArt - 2004-05-15

(correlates: PolicyMaking, QuarterJinx, FortWorthMoneyMuseum, ...)