News & Notes

Q&A with Beth Zaiken

Published February 21, 2024 | 5 min read

By Louis Golino

This is the second installment in a series of interviews with coin designers and medallic sculptors that began with master sculptor Heidi Wastweet.

Beth Zaiken has had a lifelong passion for depicting the natural world, history, and biology. She has been a freelance artist and illustrator for the past 20 years. Since 2009, she’s been the lead muralist for Blue Rhino Studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There, she creates large-scale murals for museum, zoological, and cultural center exhibits worldwide. Zaiken’s sculptures often depict animals and humans.

In 2019 she joined the U.S. Mint’s prestigious Artistic Infusion Program. Zaiken has designed one or both sides of eight U.S. coins and medals, as well as both sides of the new 2024 Harriet Tubman centennial silver dollar. 

Her obverse design for the 2021 American Liberty $100 gold coin and silver medal departed from past depictions of Liberty on U.S. coinage. She used the form of a bucking mustang horse to represent Liberty. Zaiken crafted the reverse of the recently released 2024 American Innovation™ dollar for Illinois. She also designed the forthcoming 2024 Patsy Takemoto Mink American Women Quarter™.

Zaiken’s other design credits include the reverse of the 2023 American Innovation dollar for Ohio, both sides of the 2022 National Purple Heart Hall of Fame commemorative half dollar, and the obverse of the 2020 Women’s Suffrage Centennial silver medal.

I see coins as miniature exhibits you carry in your pocket—all are intended to communicate and educate.

Louis Golino: How do your years of experience working as a museum muralist and freelance illustrator inform your work designing coins as a United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program member?

Beth Zaiken: I have spent most of my career designing and creating various visual tools to help educators, scientists, historians, and institutions communicate their content to the public. Extending that same practice to coins and medals has come quite naturally to me. I see coins as miniature exhibits you carry in your pocket—all are intended to communicate and educate. The imagery might be more symbolic and evocative. However, it should still send the message with accuracy and intention—whether it is a subjective conceptual idea like “Liberty,” a historical narrative (like the Greatest Generation or Harriet Tubman commemoratives), or a more literal piece like the steel plow on the American Innovation $1 coins. Telling stories in art has always been essential to how I navigate the world. 

LG: Please tell us about your designs for both sides of the 2024 Harriet Tubman Centennial Commemorative silver dollar, including your inspiration and how you see Tubman’s legacy for our country.

BZ: Harriet Tubman is a real-life legend in our history (also tragically undervalued). Her heroic story only becomes more inspiring the more you know about her. I can think of no more worthy figure to celebrate on our currency.  

In 2023 I was selected to work on the American Innovation $1 coin for Ohio that recognized the Underground Railroad, which I felt was ultimately based on human connection—one person reaching out to help another. I used clasped hands breaking a chain to symbolize that human connection then. I employed a similar device on the 2024 silver dollar, where the hands form a “human bridge” over which the silhouettes of people travel to freedom. Those hands complete the narrative established in the obverse, where a proud young Harriet offers her hand to the viewer, challenging them to come with her. Once taken, her hand and the viewer’s create the bridge to freedom in the reverse.

Folk knowledge told people to “follow the drinking gourd” (referring to the Big Dipper constellation). Its orientation in the night sky points toward the north star. By including that important constellation and integrating the north star into the legend, I’d hoped to suggest that the idea of “the United States of America” itself might become that guiding symbol—a beacon leading to freedom.

2024 Harriet Tubman commemorative. Zaiken designed the obverse and reverse of the coin to tell a narrative of freedom. (Photos: U.S. Mint & Olivia McCommons)

LG: Your design for the obverse of the 2021 American Liberty $100 gold coin that features a bucking mustang horse has been a big hit with collectors. It won a Coin of the Year “Best Gold Coin” award in 2023. Please tell us about this design and your unique take on the theme of Liberty.

BZ: In the most general sense, a wild animal violently rejecting the trappings of domestication is a strong metaphor for the love of freedom and liberty. Because I’ve shown the animal saddled but with no human in sight, it asks the viewer to relate not with the absent rider but with the ridden—to see themselves in the spirit of a powerful creature that refuses to be broken by oppression of any kind and yearns to be free. What is more American than that?

Horses evolved in North America and disappeared just 10,000 years ago, only to be reintroduced as escaped domesticated animals brought over by the Spanish. Those animals quickly adapted to survive in some of this continent’s harshest conditions. The gene pool has since been mixed with animals worldwide, including Europe, Asia, and North Africa. In my mind, this makes our wild mustang horse the ultimate American icon. They are as native to this land as possible, yet simultaneously an immigrant to the nation as we know it today.

The Patsy Takemoto Mink American Women Quarter (left) and the 2021 American Liberty $100 gold coin. The latter depicts the allegorical figure Liberty as a bucking mustang, a bold departure from prior depictions on coins. (Photos: U.S. Mint & Olivia McCommons)