Four Questions for Leroy Transfield
"I so wanted to create a great design!"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Last month, the U.S. Mint unveiled their design for the new 2018 World War I Centennial Silver Dollar. The coin is to honor the 4.7 million American men and women who served in the war, and a surcharge from the proceeds have been authorized to go to support the activities of our U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. The designer of the Centennial Silver Dollar is Leroy Transfield, He is an experienced sculptor from New Zealand. His design was picked through an open international competition, hosted by the U.S. Mint, and this is his first coin for them. We talked to him about the coin, the inspiration, and his own personal ties to World War I.
Congratulations! You have designed a coin for the U.S. Mint! What does it feel like? How did they let you know? It was an open design competition. How did you hear about it, and what was that process.
I heard about it through the Mint website. They did a good page on it that got me excited. I have always wanted to do a coin and a war theme is something I am familiar with.
Tell us about the coin you designed, and the symbolism in the artwork, the creative decisions you made,
I recently created a personal essay on that topic for the U.S. Mint, which I have included below, in whole.
-You have personal connection to World War I. And you also have an interesting background -- growing up in New Zealand, training as a sculptor. Tell us about yourself.
Yes i have always loved 3-D sculpting. In New Zealand Maoris were prodigious wood carvers going back many centuries. I learnt to sculpt at Brigham YoungUniversity. They had a very good program there with students from the Pacific and US mainland. My teacher was Jan Fisher (1938 to 2016). He was a good example of hard work and inspiration. I actually came to Utah to go and get my graduate degree but was rejected from the program so decided to open my own studio and start taking on commissions and selling pieces in galleries. It was extremely challenging and we went through a lot of hard times but at the same time most rewarding and a great time in my life. On top of that I really improved as an artist which I attribute to going through the refiners fire.
My grandmothers brother Huriwhenua Taiaroa and her cousin Te Oti Taiaroa fought in World War I. They came back and died in the 1930’s. On my grandfather's side, they fought in World War II.
Looking ahead -- What are the next steps for the coin project, and for your other projects. What else are you working on?
The coin is actually finished, I think. Don Everhardt the head sculptor at the mint did the work as his last project. He is now retired. The first strike ceremony is next. I plan on attending. It will take place at the Mint in Philadelphia on November 28.
I have some pieces I am working on for shows and galleries and have some designs I’m working on for a large group composition for Hawaii. My skill level and experience is such that I want to do some really great pieces in the way and the subject I want it to be. Our big plan (starting 2019) we will be to travel the Pacific and sculpt the people of the different Polynesian islands from Hawaii to New Zealand, Fiji to Tahiti, send the molds back to Utah to be cast and have a big show somewhere, maybe New York.
The Creation of the Design for the U.S. Mint's New 2018 World War I Centennial Silver Dollar
How the Coin Was Made, by LeRoy Transfield
When I first heard about the world war one design competition by the United States Mint for a commemorative coin I was very excited. I was interested and inspired for many reasons. First off, ever since I was very little I was fascinated by war and war stories and comic books depicting war. The highlight of my week was to watch the British Documentary World at War. Since then I still enjoy many aspects of history, not just war. But war is a big part of our world because the way that things are now came about from those wars.
Secondly I was excited because I am a sculptor and love sculpture of all kinds. My specialty is sculpture in the round, figures, people. I have done very few low relief sculptures and no coins. Despite this I enjoy looking at well sculpted coins and even have a small coin collection of my own. My favorite American coin is the Standing Liberty quarter by Herman MacNiel.
Thirdly I have done a number of war memorials for local towns in the area including the city I live in. During these experiences I have gotten to know many veterans and people that fought in most of the major wars of the 20th century. Many of them including people I worked very closely with, are now gone. But I often think of them and how their lives have touched mine.
Last I was inspired by my own family. Both extended and immediate. I have been supported and helped over the years and always feel grateful for their support. Also my Great Uncle on my mothers side actually fought in World War One as part of the Maori Battalion. The Maori Battalion were part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to aid the allies. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.
All this excitement and energy flowed through me when I first got the news that I was a finalist. I so wanted to create a great design! Even though I had seen many WW I movies already and new the history, I review many pictures, books, films and documentaries to focus on the American role in the war.
I also looked at great coins. Not so much as to get an idea for a design or copy them, but to dissect those good coins and figure out what made them so good compared to average coins and what rules helped them achieve such inspiring results. I wanted an original design but one that followed those lines of greatness.
I thought about the poem, In Flanders Fields and thought Poppies would be a good thing to put in there somewhere. I also thought of the armistice and how excited everyone was when the hour came. A peace that may well not have happened without American support.
With all these thoughts I started drawing images. I drew for two weeks. Ideas and designs of mostly soldiers in different poses that could easily be accentuated in a relief coin design. After this I started making clay versions of my sketches and quickly realized the drawings were useless and didn’t help me see problems in the design once it was built up in clay.
After about 4 or 5 weeks I was hitting a wall. No really good design was standing out from the numerous changes and trials I had done. The mint offered a conference call to all 20 participants to go over any questions we might have. This was of great help. In the call I asked, what is the most common mistake made by beginning coin designers. The person, I forgot his name, said the most common mistake was adding too much detail to the 8 inch mock up because one has to keep in mind that the final will be only 1.5 inches and much of the detail will be lost. Even though I already knew this it sank in even more. The other impression I got from the call was that the mint is really leaving things open to the finalists and wants to see what we can come up with, and not worry a whole lot about whether the design is right for coining as they have sculptors would fix those problems. They just wanted to see what we could come up with.
The first thing I did was scrap the board I was working on. At 18 inches it was way too big. I thought that in working larger than the required 8 inch casts to be submitted, I could make a good large design and boil it down to a really good 8 inch final. Instead, I went the opposite way and started to work smaller than the 8 inches to get a better feeling of a coin. I started sculpting on 4 inch wood discs. This really helped a lot. It made it way easier to make a quick design and help me see if it was going to work.
I finally came up with the soldier profile, collar up and a rifle slung over his shoulder. This was not the final design but a good starting point. As I had the soldier in profile worked up, I wanted to add to it but knew not what it needed. That night I had barbed wire going though my head. Soldiers charging barbed wire, wire in the dirt and finally somehow, wire on my relief sculpture. After dreaming about barbed wire I went to the piece and add the two small strands of wire in opposition to the rifle and the soldier. The hands also seems a natural thing to add and just like that I had the design for the Obverse.
I was very demanding on myself and didn’t say, that’s it, that's the one. What I said was that’s a good Obverse, now make another. Another one never came. I was running out of time so I decided then to make that my Obverse and put my thoughts into the reverse. I actually thought I had a good idea already, an eagle. It was going to be a diving eagle, in profile, with wings outstretched holding arrows and an olive branch. In the eagles beak would be a banner with the words e plurubus unum. In the background would be a map of Europe. I just knew it would look good. But when I fleshed it out it looked terrible!
I looked for another idea. It had to be as good as the soldier. The eagle didn’t work but I wanted to try a bird again and knew that carrier pigeons were used a lot in World War One so I decided to use a pigeon. I looked at many pigeons and pigeon photos and sculpted up something I thought looked ideal. This was good because the time for submitting was running out! I had only three days left.
With the pieces molded and cast to the 8 inch specifications I had the two designs. The soldier looked good. I had different thoughts about the pigeon. I sculpted the bird as best I could but the final reverse looked not near as good as the obverse. I was dumbfounded. I had to send the pigeon, time was up, I had no time to make another. But as I looked at the pigeon I became more and more alarmed to the point where my stomach ached to look at it. I was tired of the whole project. I thought I should just send it and be done with it. But on more reflection I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t send it!
Firstly I thought of the embarrassment of the committee seeing this lousy pigeon. I wouldn't be there, I reasoned, but that didn't help. Sure they might like the soldier, perhaps they will choose that and another reverse. Even so I just couldn’t send it.
So I did a thought conversation and said to myself if you don't like it them make something else, in your style, that you do like. Even if the committee doesn’t like it at least you can be happy with what you send and no regrets. But then I would vacillate back to you have run out of time just send it and be done with the thing.
At that time my daughter wanted to go on a 9 mile bike ride up Provo canyon, a favorite summer activity and jump off a local bridge into the chilling Provo river. School was about to start so this would be one last activity with my daughter. The ride there took about an hour. In retrospect this time away made all the difference in my final decision to send a different reverse. As I left and rode away from my work I had a greater perspective. I could see I had learnt a lot in the last 10 weeks about coin sculpting and may well be able to come up with a good design in two days. Halfway into my ride I convinced myself that the pigeon had to go and now, what was I going to do to replace it? As we got to the bridge I came back to the beginning, poppies. But poppies are a little uninteresting and not that good looking in relief coin sculpture. So my next thoughts were how to make the poppies look better.
This was all going on while I was enjoying the summer whether and river water with my daughter. To jump into the river one would climb up on a steel rail about 4.5 feet above the bridge, balance there and jump into the water 15 feet below. It was exhilarating. Standing on top of the rail is quite an inspiring thing. The beautiful canyon, trees, rocks and water looked awesome. I often thought that on a stormy day a bolt of lightening could easily find it’s way to the person standing perched so high on the bridge. As I stood there I thought came to me of using the barbed wire again in contrast to the poppies. I've got it I said and jumped into water fridge water. I had it all now, in my mind. All I needed to do was go home and put in down in clay. When I got home my wife to catch up with me on her day. We talked about the recent passing of my old sculpture teacher and some of the funny stories he would tell us students. All this time I was sculpting the poppies and the wire. In an hour it was done. That’s it! I said. I was unsure if it was a winning design but it was a design I could put my name to and come what may, I wasn't embarrassed.
The plaster casts made it to the US mint the very last day of the deadline.