Since 1987, leading bas-relief sculptor and medallic artist Heidi Wastweet has sculpted over 1,000 models for coins and medals. In many instances, she also developed the designs for these masterpieces. Her work ranges from commissioned sculptures and public monuments to popular coins and medals. The latter includes her Egyptian Gods series, Freedom Girl design, and Raven medal for the Medal Collectors of America (MCA).
In 2019 Wastweet joined the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program (AIP). This talented group showcases outside artists who create U.S. coin designs that mint sculptor-engravers execute. Her first U.S. coin design was the reverse of the 2021 National Law Enforcement Memorial commemorative half dollar. That was followed in 2022 with her designs for both sides of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor silver dollar.
Next month, her creativity will come to life on the obverse of the 2024-W Greatest Generation $5 gold coin. This series, which recognizes the 20th anniversary of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., will also include silver dollars and half dollars that other designers have crafted.
I spoke with Heidi in late January to discuss her design philosophy, her artistry as an AIP artist at the U.S. Mint, and the challenges and triumphs she experienced as president of the American Medallic Sculpture Association and a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. (Comments have been edited for length and clarity.)
Heidi Wastweet: My experience on the CCAC showed me that we have to continually change our thinking along with the changing ways we view coins—specifically, the way we view them online and zoom in with ease to see the smallest details. For each coin or medal that the U.S. Mint produces, the first touchpoint with the public is the drawing. Then comes the digital rendition of the coin, not the actual coin in hand. That first impression is crucial. So, how it looks in hand becomes… not unimportant but certainly secondary. I even know some collectors purchase coins they see online and never open the packaging in person to keep it pristine. Circulating coins, especially, in my opinion, need to be designed to look good both in hand and digitally.
The other thing that came to light was the importance of semantics. For example, when we say “modern design” or “contemporary design,” I initially thought those were clear phrases. But in reality, everyone has a different mental image of what that means. Some people imagine Picasso or Jackson Pollock, while others imagine designs that depict common objects of today, like mobile phones or current clothing and hairstyles. Others see modern ideals of beauty or racial diversity. When we say “classic design,” some people think of the George Washington quarter, while others see women in ancient Greek togas.
HW: AMSA is a small, scrappy, but important organization. It is dedicated to promoting the creation and appreciation of art medals and coin design.
During my term as president, we decided not to follow the trend of going digital with our newsletter. Our members encouraged us to maintain a printed, quarterly publication.
Our continuing concern is keeping up our membership numbers. Many of our members are in their later years, and we don’t have many young artists joining. It’s an ideal medium for young artists because the size is affordable, accessible, and low risk for experimentation. Our challenge is to reach them in an education system that does not include art medals in the curriculum.
As for what issues medallic artists face today, I’d say, first and foremost, they need support and encouragement from collectors. They also need more venues/galleries to show medals, more museums to recognize what they are doing, and more media attention.
LG: What is your favorite classic American coin and your favorite modern American coin? Why do you admire these pieces?
HW: It’s impossible to choose just one. The two classic coins that come to mind first are the incuse American Indian Head half eagle (gold $5) by Bela Lyon Pratt and the Peace dollar by Anthony de Francisci. Of the modern-era coins, I have a soft spot for the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary gold coin designed by Justin Kunz and sculpted by Phebe Hemphill. That was such a meaningful piece, as Liberty is depicted as a black woman. I was honored to be on the CCAC when we selected the design.
LG: What inspired your design for the 2024-W Greatest Generation $5 gold coin obverse?
HW: My inspiration was the wall of gold stars at the World War II Memorial representing the lives lost in the conflict. I found it difficult to comprehend the seemingly endless number of stars. To portray this on a coin’s small scale, I could not design it in a literal fashion but rather symbolically, in a way that the stars seem to go beyond the scope of the coin. It was important to me to include the olive branch to remind ourselves of not only what is lost but also what is to be gained.