NGC Signer Spotlight: Lyndall Bass

Posted on 8/15/2023

A Q&A with the artist and coin designer who created the iconic "Union Shield" reverse for the Lincoln Cent is the latest installment in a series highlighting NGC’s many illustrious signers.

In the realm of art, where creativity meets craftsmanship, there are artists whose works transcend mere aesthetics, delving into the very essence of the human experience. Among these visionaries stands the remarkable artist Lyndall Bass. Her striking “Union Shield” design has been featured on the reverse of more than 80 billion Lincoln Cents since 2010.

Numismatic Guaranty Company® (NGC®) recently interviewed Bass, capturing her thoughts, inspirations and artistic process. In this exclusive conversation, we explore the depths of her artistry and the meaning behind her thought-provoking creations.

A Q&A with Lyndall Bass

Artist Lyndall Bass

What inspired you to pursue coin design, and how did you get your start?

Before I got into the US Mint’s Artist Infusion Program, I admired coins as unique historical bas-reliefs without having an understanding of their history or how they came to be.

As a student at PAFA, I knew some of the graduates above me had gone on to work at the Mint in the design department. Because of that, I took note of the Mint’s freelancer’s design program when I saw it in an Artist’s Call opportunity listing online. I jumped at the chance and applied immediately — submitting my portfolio and completing a required coin design sample assignment.

The position attracted me because I would get to research subjects from American history and my drawings would need to be done as a combination of traditional realism, narrative imagination, visual communication, and aesthetic problem-solving. Knowing the work could lead to a thoroughly final result was a big spur.

It was also a way for me to serve the government with my artistic talents, and that meant a lot.

What tools and techniques do you use to create your coin designs, and how have they evolved over the years?

It starts with studying an actual assignment and selecting imagery to begin drawing out some ideas. I do a lot of research, then start with preliminary sketches and drawings. I toss out what doesn’t work, carry on with the germ of what might work, put in long hours, wring my hands and eventually come up with something I’m confident to turn in.

Once that happens, there tends to be more suggestions and change orders from staff as the coin enters review, so I then make changes to my entry as I learn from their responses and requests until we get to the final submission.

After the final submission, committee reviews can lead to more changes, sometimes for simple details and sometimes for radical changes leading to a complete redraw of the design. Pencils, paper, my digital scanner and Photoshop tools are my workshop.

We have to draw a two-dimensional “map” for the sculptors at the Mint who create a clay relief by hand. Their sculpture is digitized with a scanner for adjustments in 3-D computer systems. Computer 3-D programs make the code for laser cutting machines that hammer out blank discs for final coins. From start to finish, it’s a team process.

If I am awarded the original design concept, then my initials “LB” are displayed on a reverse with the staff engraver’s initials.

What do you think makes a coin design truly exceptional, and how do you strive to achieve that level of quality in your work?

In a nutshell, superb draftsmanship of form, pinpoint symbolism, perfect balance of simplicity and complexity. The blank surfaces around and within the motifs should be as dynamic and interesting as the relief elements.

The design should address concerns and technical possibilities of modern coins in a thoughtful way. They should be artistic but not cross the line toward the merely decorative. I have a hard time with enamel coloring of sovereign coins because they usually seem too decorative to me.

The design should be formally defined as meant only for a coin yet make a captivating “picture” at the same time — a very tall order.

Click image to enlarge.

What was the creation process behind your “Union Shield” design used on Lincoln Cents starting in 2010?

The creation process started with a script of meaning for the assignment. The Lincoln cent reverse for the assignment script asked for a coin to commemorate the “preservation of the Union.”

My first entry of a full-length portrait of the sculpture of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial was turned down. Word came down to think “shield, eagle, laurel wreath.” I decided to focus after that on the importance of Lincoln’s achievement in restoring the stability and faith in US currency. I then drew up an entry that included all three motifs.

Committees asked for two new designs, one with the shield and wreath and one with the shield only. Both of those got into the finals and then the “Shield Cent” was chosen.

It’s hard to actually get the full impact of the presence of a coin from drawings. I was sort of in shock at the time to “win,” and now understand it was the right one of my own four designs for such a small coin as the penny.

You have said your work is influenced by French artist Jacques Maroger. What did you learn from studying his techniques?

Maroger was a chemist who worked at the Louvre before leaving France during the Second World War for New York, where he continued to work as a conservator. He re-invented a painting medium that made painting more in tune with “old master” techniques. One of his students had a student who was also my teacher, so I learned mostly about the workmanlike construction of a painting so that it has a strong build, rich surface and an archival lifespan.

I am most influenced, however, by European painters.

Patriotic imagery is a break from your traditional themes of women and still life. What drew you to the Lincoln cent?

I don’t really think of it as a break; it’s just two different things.

The US Mint sends out explicit orders that are commissions for given subjects. We don’t get the choice one way or the other of which coins to work on. I feel like I was lucky to get to work on the Lincoln cent.

Patriotic subjects are always meant to be inspirational. It takes honest work on the part of an artist to make patriotic subjects come alive. That is what makes our Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster or Rosie the Riveter saying “We Can Do It” so everlasting. These icons are refreshed time and again in different ways and always have that American thing. It is a fascinating puzzle to try and come up with icons like that. On the other hand, “political” art can be dead as a doornail — art that is “used” for a propagandistic purpose.

To me patriotic art has to do with the love of people for the higher principles of their nation. I am in awe of the history of our Founding Fathers working to define our country’s vision of a workable, elastic yet elegant republic.

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