Creating History: An Exclusive Interview with Master Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz

Interview with Joel Iskowitz

Joel Iskowitz stands as a renowned and prolific designer of coins and medals on a global scale, distinguished by his remarkable creations adorning prestigious venues such as the US Capitol, the Pentagon, and the White House. We hold a deep appreciation for his artistic prowess and are delighted to engage in an interview with Joel, delving into his creative process, inspirations, and profound insights into designing coins cherished by millions of collectors, destined to endure the test of time and captivate future generations. We greatly appreciate his designs and are pleased to have the opportunity to interview Joel about his work, inspirations and insights into designing coins that delight collectors.

Can you share with us your journey into the world of coin design? What initially sparked your interest in this field?

First of all, I would like to thank you for your interest in my work and this opportunity to discuss my efforts in the numismatic field.

During the course of my lifelong love of creating artwork, when I was at the stage of my career producing stamp designs for many nations, I was asked by the Intergovernmental Philatelic Corporation to create simple line drawings that would be used as coin designs for British Royals. At the time I thought this would be a little extra work added to my main task of stamp design. That was back in the early 1990s and was my first attempt at coin design. Little did I realize that designing coinage and medallic art would constitute my lifelong area of specialization. Fast forward to 2005 I was accepted in the United States Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program. I found that projects and subject matter required of the artists was both challenging and invigorating at the same time. Challenging, because the technical requirements were very restrictive, and yet the subject matter involving history, and the great individuals involved in changing and shaping that history was extremely exhilarating.

As a designer for a renowned mint, what are the key factors you consider when creating a new coin design? How do you balance historical significance with modern aesthetics?

Well, before I ever pick up a pencil and draw a line, I always try to conduct extensive research into the subject matter at hand. If at all possible, I will travel to the site of where any given historical events occurred, where the individuals who were involved in the narrative lived. If visiting the sights that contain palpable remnants of the narrative to be illustrated is impossible, then I will refer to the secondary sources at hand, such as National Archives, biographies, books, periodicals and picture collections. Once I feel that I have gained enough knowledge, empathy and understanding of my subject matter, I truly feel that in order for my artwork to ring true and do justice to the subjects, that my art must be in service to the story to be told. For me the focus is to relate the story. My artwork, although I strive for aesthetic appeal, I don’t want my stylization or techniques to overshadow the theme. As far as modern aesthetics, we really have a Pandora’s box of conflicting theories about art, modern art versus classical art. I believe that many of the voices that mandate that today’s designs must have a “modern” look to them are foisting an artificial manifesto upon contemporary artists. By definition, any art that is created today is modern, chronologically speaking. Aesthetically speaking, I believe that artwork, if it is beautiful, and tells a compelling story that could be understood across cultural barriers is classical art. By classical, I mean art that would be appreciated as edifying and beautiful in any era by any culture. Art beyond category. Art beyond borders and category: that’s what I strive for. One last thought about the modern versus classical dialogue, is that, just as I feel it is important to do your research before you “sing your song” if you will, it is vital to study the past masters in order to add something new to the universal dialogue which is art. If one attempts to create art which is modern and does not have a basis of knowledge and appreciation for what has gone before, then that artist is bound to offer a superficial flash in the pan that will not stand the test of time.

Could you walk us through your creative process when tasked with designing a new coin? From conceptualization to final product, what steps do you take to ensure each design is unique and meaningful?

This is an excellent and complex question. As I mentioned before, I tried to do my due diligence and research any project as deeply as possible. This allows me to let all the elements I’ve learned bounce around in my head and my imagination. Eventually sometimes when I least expect it, connections both conceptual and visual begin to develop. Often these visual concepts connect and unite, almost like molecules forming a new multi layered element. Of course, each project has its individual identity, and so the process varies accordingly. One size does not fit all. Once I’ve gathered a store of visual elements it becomes my job to organize them in such a way that they form a cohesive pattern that begins to tell the story. Another term for what I just described his composition. Once the composition, or more accurately, many versions of the composition is established, it is time for refinement. I start with pencil on paper and then I enter a mode in which digital technology plays a part. Having been a printmaker producing etchings and engravings earlier in my career, I scan my drawings into photoshop, refine them, print them, re-draw into those prints, print them again and re-draw in as many stages I find necessary to reach the final drawing. In this way I use my printer as an etching press, creating many states until reaching the final iteration.

What do you find most rewarding about designing coins for a well-known mint? Are there any particular designs or projects that hold a special place in your heart?

At the moment I am fortunate to have a number of wonderful series that I am working on for the East India Company. Edmund Spencer’s epic poem “The Fairie Queene”, “The Boston Tea Party”, and the “Goddesses” collection. I have also just recently completed a ten-coin series for APMEX entitled,” Icons of inspiration”, which honors those individuals which have changed our world by virtue of their ingenuity and creativity. These two series are very close to my heart because they seem to be the perfect combination of history and art on coinage. The stories they tell are truly compelling and inspirational. Before beginning the Goddesses collection for EIC, I embarked on a series of my own, entitled “Goddesses Without Borders” which featured the female allegories of many nations and cultures interacting with each other personifying the concept of mutual respect and cultural exchange. This idea sparked by my 2015 design for the Bradford Exchange Mint, which portrayed Liberty and Britannia reaching out to each other across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean exemplifying this special friendship an alliance between these two nations. I think that’s one of my favorite designs, largely because it provoked the series honoring the feminine which I have called “Goddesses Without Borders”. I am also currently creating a ten Coin Series for U.S Coins and Bullion, which pays homage to the most beautiful and popular American coins.

With advancements in technology, such as digital design tools, how has the process of coin design evolved during your career? Do you prefer traditional methods, or do you embrace digital innovation?

I believe I partially answered this previously when I spoke about how my procedure involves analog old fashioned pencil drawings combined with the digital technology at our disposal today. I would like to further add that I believe any new technology can offer both exciting new creative opportunities, as well as play the role of a seductive foe leading us to a form of lazy dependence. I think true creativity, discipline and sensitivity can be utilized with any of the tools at our disposal, whether they be traditional or cutting edge.

How do you approach incorporating cultural and national symbols into your coin designs? What challenges do you face in ensuring these symbols are accurately represented and respectfully portrayed?

I try my very best to make certain my visual representations are accurate. Of course, I believe it’s importance to allow for a certain artistic license, but that liberty must not betray the underlying virtue a portraying any given narrative correctly. In the case of cultural and national symbols specifically, I pay great attention to the details and the meanings behind the details of heraldry, symbolism and ideography.

Can you share any insights into upcoming trends or themes in coin design? What do you believe collectors and enthusiasts can look forward to in the future?

It seems to me that collectors, mints of the world and those involved in the design and production of coinage are moving toward the newer possibilities in the areas of higher relief and greater detail that contemporary minting methods offer. BH Mayer of Germany, along with collaborative entities like CIT seem to have blazed this new path toward the future.
I find myself excited by new opportunities the cutting-edge technologies offer for designers. I would caution though, that we have to be careful not to be corrupted by these technologies and allow them to overshadow the content of our designs. If we use these new advances to enhance the content, then we are truly moving forward.

Collaboration is often key in the creative process. How do you collaborate with other team members, such as engravers and mint officials, to bring your designs to life?

I have been very fortunate to collaborate were some of the finest sculptors of bas relief in the world. My collaborations with engravers and sculptors during my association with the United States Mint and private sector mints include a list of peers that read like a who’s who of numismatic art. John Mercanti, Don Everhart, Phebe Hemphill, Donna Weaver, Mike Guadioso, Joe Menna, Jim Licaretz, and Charles Vickers from my days at the U.S. Mint. Luigi Badia, Emerson Abraham, Eugene Daub, Jody Clark, James Hughes, Dan Penny and Heidi Wasstweet from the private sector.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring coin designers who hope to follow in your footsteps and make their mark in the industry?

Develop your sense of responsibility to history and your subject matter, by doing your research so thoroughly that your artwork will be in the service of your subject and do it justice. Study the past as you look to the future and remember that your work will serve as a miniature ambassador of history, culture, art and good will, circulating the world overcoming barriers of space and time.

All images copyright Joel Iskowitz

More about Joel Iskowitz:

Joel Iskowitz – Wikipedia

Joel Iskowitz Master US Coin Designer and Artist – USA Coin Book

Joel Iskowitz: Master Coin Designer

A Q&A with Coin Designer Joel Iskowitz


Iskowitz Lays Claim to First Liberty/Britannia Coin

Joel Iskowitz – a renowned American designer known for his extraordinary contributions to numismatics and art.

Joel Iskowitz Joins NGC Authentic Hand-Signed Labels Program