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For the Love of Money

An Artist Hopes to See His Work Gain Currency

June 06, 2004|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Charles Danek may soon have his artwork in every pocket in America. He is anxiously awaiting the United States Mint's decision on the design for a renovated nickel. His obverse (head-side) depiction of Thomas Jefferson is one of six submissions forwarded by the mint and the National Endowment for the Arts for consideration by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. If selected, Danek's Jefferson would be crafted on a new 5-cent piece by sculptors at the mint for circulation next year.

A longtime coin collector who dreamed as a child of designing coins, Danek responded in January to a call for artists on the mint's website--just five days before the deadline--with an essay, slides of his artwork and a prototype quarter. The response was quick. "I got a call, 'Can you come to the mint in two weeks for orientation?' I didn't sleep all night." Danek, an editorial and advertising photo shoot producer in Hollywood, is among 24 artists named to the Artistic Infusion Program by the mint, which is renovating its coins. Artists in the pool can submit designs for coin revamps; each submission earns a fee, with additional payment if a design is chosen.

An avid coin collector since he started with pocket change at age 8, Danek specializes in early 20th century pieces and keeps his collection in a bank. Among his favorites are $2.50 and $5 gold issues designed by Bela Lyon Pratt, which Danek cherishes for their "different surface textures, the incuse and concave features."

"I don't know what it is specifically," he says. "I just like having coins around."

Last altered in 1938, the nickel is getting a makeover for the mint's Westward Journey set of four new designs featuring Jefferson on the heads side, like the current nickel, with phases of the Lewis and Clark expedition on the tails. One in the series is circulating, while another arrives in August. Danek's art, a Jefferson head design, could adorn one of the remaining two nickels, due in 2005. When the mint phases out the Westward Journey coins by 2006 and opts for a revamped version of the traditional nickel featuring Jefferson and Monticello, Danek would also have a crack at that model.

Danek and the other artists in the program toured the Philadelphia mint for two days in February. "We got to catch coins that were still warm as they came off the presses. They gave us little fiberglass hard hats that fit over your toes," he says. He received his first design specs in Philadelphia, but details are still hush-hush until the nickel is unveiled.

Jefferson, America's third president, was an accomplished scientist, inventor, linguist and architect who established the University of Virginia. Leaving no stone unturned, Danek visited Jefferson's fabled Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Va. "I wanted a very personal relationship to Jefferson that I could literally draw from. The Founding Fathers I studied in high school seemed so remote and distant." Closer to home, Danek consumed books and documentaries on Jefferson. He also consulted Dale Reynolds, a Jefferson impersonator who has been portraying the sage of Monticello at dinners, parties, schools and luncheons since the '70s. "We went out for Thai food," Danek says.

Danek has a one-year contract with the United States Mint, and the option to renew for two more. He hopes for a long-term relationship with the mint whether or not his Jefferson design is a final pick. "I care very, very deeply about coins," says the artist, who has been inundated with corn-pone coin puns. "My friends say, 'You're in the money now' or 'If I had a nickel for every . . . . ' "

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