Two Coins in my Pocket

I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out two quarters. Before I paid for my taco, I took a second look at the coins. That look sent me scrambling for enough change to pay for the already-ordered lunch and still keep the two coins.

These coins sat in my hand and spoke deeply to me about the choices we make in art.

The first coin:

SD 2006

SD 2006

South Dakota as depicted in the state coin of 2006, shows Mount Rushmore – the complete view of the four presidents. It also depicts a Chinese Ring-Necked Pheasant, the state bird, in flight. All of this is encircled by ears of wheat, reminiscent of the plumes of wheat on an old penny. The wheat is also a nod to a critical product of the state.

The state coin does a good job of depicting South Dakota. The layout of space and choice of the bird in action are good, but the artist was asked to sacrifice quality for quantity in the design. As a result, the faces of Mount Rushmore suffer. President Jefferson’s face especially is distorted. It is so small it cannot be minted to look anything like the original carving (shown below). And the flight of the bird is unrelated to the monument over which it flies.

And then I saw the second coin:

SD 2006

SD 2006

The second coin is the 2013 National Park quarter. Though the depiction is again of Mount Rushmore, here the focus is on the first two president’s heads in side view, and on the process of creating the sculpture. In front of Washington’s majestic silhouette, there is a hint of scaffolding. Beside a very recognizable Jefferson, we see a roped carver swinging his mallet. (the carver is Gutzon Borglum, I assume, or his son, )

In the first coin, mint artist, John Mercanti, whose design was chosen by the people of the state, took the pulled-back camera view and depict many items in a small space. In the second, the designer chose to move in, show the monumental size of two presidents. The artist also showed action that was directly related to the carvings.

The second coin, with its tight focus, tells a story and thus is much more memorable design.

I will try to remember this artistic truth when I create. Focus. Bring my audience into the focus of my art. Let the carefully chosen part depict the complex whole.

Do you have examples of this choice in your own work? Camera pulled back? Camera in tight? Are there examples of the long-view, close-view choice in paintings, sculptures, poetry, plays, or books you’ve enjoyed? Write to me at rae@raerichen.com about your own ideas and examples. Let’s hear it for perspective choice.

By the way, I want to give credit to the artist of the National Park coin, but the website doesn’t list the designers. I have written to them with the request that they give credit to the artists. When they answer, I will let you know.