Presented at the AMSA Workshop and Conference
University of Hartford, July 1992
By Eugene Daub
My talk today is from the perspective of an artist who makes a significant portion of this living – some years more, others less – from medallic art. Therefore, I’m in a foo position to have observed that, for the most part, people who commission medals are not much interested in pushing the boundaries of medallic art. Nor should they be. They need to communicate a specific message – to honor or pay tribute. Their medal has to do a job.
They also have a deadline and a budget. This is usually where business and art have a parting of ways. There are other compromises too:
– The client may want 20 words, when 5 to 10 would work out better for the design
– Or, you may know that a profile would be better suited to a portrait, but the only thing available is a dead-on frontal photograph – with the shadows blown away by a flash cube.
– Or, the design already is busy, but the client decides that a logo, stylistically out of synch with the design, must be included.
In spite of such problems, I do enjoy sculpting commissioned medals because they’re usually a design challenge, and I’m a sculptor who enjoys doing portraits. (I realize that may be hard to accept if you have seen only my recent, experimental work).
In the past, patrons and designers were predisposed to commissioning a work of medallic art as a means of expression. In those days, medallic art was the time-honored way to state a message or commemorate an occasion. Then, iconoclasts like Marcel Duchamps ushered in a whole new notion of what art is. And artists’ use of new materials and technologies, such as plastics, lasers, and computers, challenged traditional definitions of what mediums are suitable for art.
On the heels of these developments, it became chic to label older art form as as culturally passe. In addition, the advantages in technology also made it possible for commercial businesses to crank out images and objects with computers, lasers, photo-engraving and other automatic processes that yield quick, in expensive solutions. Notice that I didn’t say these things are beautiful or imbued with nobility or charm, but they do feed the human thirst for novelty.
As a result, much of the clientele who, in the past, would have commissioned medals from artist has turned to the commercial products of the advertising specialty business. And, a lot of people who could be commissioning medals today have ever heard of medallic art. In fact, many art student don’t even know what bas-relief or medallic art is!
Over the past 10 years, the small but mighty AMSA has worked hard to change this state of affairs – raising the status of medallic sculpture to just above that of endangered species. Because of AMSA, we now have the opportunity to save our art form and make it a viable force again.
Medallic Sculpture as Art
We can’t wait for someone to choose an acceptable hero or event to commemorate, or for someone to give us a lot of money to make medals. We must choose our own people and causes, and proceed to use medallic art to promote and champion our own ideas.
I challenge you to choose a theme and do a medal on it. Better yet, do a series of medals and don’t worry about the marketing, just get to work. If it’s your favorite subject, it will bring out the best in you and suggest its own appropriate road to the marketplace.
Some subjects are more saleable than others, but don’t let that sway you. Cats and horses are saleable, but if you’re into iguanas and pterodactyls, maybe you’ll also have less competition. After all, how many medallists in the U.S. are into pterodactyls?
The Advantages of Low Tech
Once you’ve picked your theme, you’re ready to start thinking about how you’re going to produce it. The technology to produce medals the traditional way is costly and time-consuming. But, I might add, it’s worth it, and I don’t think I’ll ever want to abandon that technology altogether.
I’m happiest when I can complete the work quickly. The adventure of an idea won’t always keep if it’s not acted on right away. It may jut evaporate – or get relegated to a different priority level, never to surface again. (This advice comes from a person with 14 sketchbooks of ideas that have not yet seen the light of day).
To remedy this, my efforts in the last few years have been to create more personal medals, using low tech and inexpensive materials. There are several reasons for this: 1) I have the ability to manipulate the medal and control it or have a dialogue with it from start to finish; 2) it is financially “doable”; 3) I’m not afraid to take risks; and 4) I have found it very exciting to manipulate sheet metal, copper, aluminum, steel, slay, metallic luster glazes, medallic powders, an leafing techniques.
The dilemma of quality and tradition versus contemporary technology and taste has given me much reason for consternation. I have seen struck and cast medals of the highest quality impressed with very bad art. I also have seen it the other way around.
So, what is quality? In painting and drawing it seems the only limitations is that it be on acid-free paper. In sculpture, I guess a dog or child must be able to chew on it without getting poisoned. But, in my experimental work, I’ve discovered that, while it’s easy to look good when using gold or silver, I’d better do something interesting if I’m going to use roof flashing or old printing plates.
Some of the alternative medals I’ve created are fragile – more art than product. In fact, I may have made medallic history at AMSA’s Hartford exhibits. I believe that I am the first artist to have a medal “fall apart” between exhibits. It must have been the pressure – or maybe it just got bad press. (Editor’s note Daub’s medal ‘Mankind’ is composed of thin layers of various kinds of medal pressed into a plastic die with a car jack.)
For me, making a living in medallic art is an ever-changing balance of commissioned medals and sculpture on one side, and my own personal work in medals and sculpture on the other. To the commissions, I bring my skills, my creativity, and my love for the face and figure, lettering, and so on. To my personal work, I bring my anger, frustrations, hopes and fears. Or, I just indulge myself in sheer play and experiment. My new techniques, many of which I’ve shown in a workshop here yesterday, have given me many ways to re-invent the medal.
So, let me conclude by thanking all the AMSA members who have worked so hard to make this conference happen. And let me also thank AMSA’s movers and shakers for all their years of effort to usher in a renaissance for medallic art.