Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Return of No Quarter (Part II)

With the new year we bring into being the latest crop of new collectible quarters from the US Mint. And as in years past I'm going to go over the designs with sarcasm dripping from my cudgel of kindly observation.

For those who tuned in late, the US Mint, having successfully launched the state quarter collection, is doubling back and taking a second dip, this time with a "National Parks" series. Actually, since not all states HAVE National Parks, it is the National Parks/Forests/Monuments/Recreation Areas series, and is also referred to as the "America the Beautiful" series.

One thing that has struck me is the improvement of technology and design since the state quarter program. I think the designs are more challenging then they were previously (see - Wyoming's State Quarter) in their attempts to show depth of field with a bas relief. Similarly, the subject matter is more concise and directed than the grab-bags you see in then previous States collection. On the other hand, the challenge of showing natural vistas or national battlefields loom large, as getting a message across in the space of a small circle.

But enough serious consideration, on with the snark,

Gettysburg National Military Park - Pennsylvania

One of the great battles of the Civil War, which, with Vicksburg (see below) sealed the fate of the Confederacy, shows Abner Doubleday preparing to lay down the first official bunt in baseball. No, no, I'm sorry. Actually, this is the monument of the 72nd PA regiment, which fought at the Bloody Angle and caught Pickett's Charge in the teeth. It is a great monument (but that's another series of blog posts) in that it captures the feeling of the hand-to-hand combat, but the statue probably gets the nod over the other monuments because it is PA's coin. Home field advantage, you know.

The coin itself captures those levels of depth I was talking about. We have the partial cannon in the foreground, making this feel more like a window than a display. The monument itself is centered and has the dominant white space. But beyond it we get the rolling hills and farmland of Pennsylvania which sets the monument into the greater world.

The monument itself was the center of a fight that reached the Supreme Court, by the way. The rules for placing monuments (yeah, they have rules), a battlefield monument should be placed where the main line of the battle existed. In the case of the Angle, the 72nd PA was driven back by Pickett's Charge, rallied, and fought back to the original front line. The Supreme Court ruled in 1891 that the monument should be placed at the original line of scrimmage instead of counting any forward progress. Talk about a booth review on the play.

Rating: A (Way Cool)

 Glacier National Park - Montana

So here's the problem of trying to create perspective: It doesn't always work. The intent here is to show the mountain goat on an outcropping in the foreground, with pines in the middle distance, and Mount Armadillo-Head Reynolds in the background. The problem is with little or no white space, we have little feel for perspective, such that we either have dwarf pines or the mountain goat is the understudy for Paul Bunyan's big blue ox. Further, the musculature of the the furry goat blends too easily.with the rocky outcropping behind it, with a deep cut along the goat's back is the only strong defining line (which in turn looks like the mountain ridge behind it). As a result, the goat disappears into its background like carved chameleon and the resulting coin is a muddle of textures.

Rating C (Meh)

Olympic National Park - Washington

So this comes out of the same kit as the Glacier Quarter - Animal, Trees, Mountain - ship it! But this works a bit better, because in part of the use of the white space of the Hoh river to clear up an otherwise muddled lower half of the coin. The elk has a clearly different surface treatment than the background, so it pops from the plane of the coin.

Still, it is the part of the scenic mountain series that we have seen way too often, even if it features Mount Olympus, which always gets second banana treatment when compared to Mt. Rainier. And the little splashy marks where the elk steps in the water? It looks like we're dealing with the rare electric elk, and soon salmon will be floating to the surface, shocked by its lightning hooves.

Rating B (Not Bad)

Vicksburg National Military Park - Mississippi

American History is filled with internal conflicts and divisions, and none so bitter as when Dr. Loveless sailed his steam behemoth up the Yazoo river, and was only foiled by Secret Service agents James West and Artemis Gordon.

OK, its really the USS Cairo, which was not AT the final Siege of Vicksburg (which was wrapped up almost simultaneously with the Battle of Gettysburg, creating an interesting dualism in the coins). The Cairo had been lost the previous winter on the Yazoo, but was later raised and is now on display at the Vicksburg National Park (there were gunboats at the Siege of Vicksburg - just not the Cairo). So Mississippi has a coin dedicated to a Union victory, depicting a Union gunboat flying union pennants. I think it is a very gutsy move, but I can't wait for the nutters to get wind of this one.

As a coin, I have to say that this is really impressive. Single image, dynamic, good balance of white space and carving. It is probably the most industrial coin we have seen, practically a steampunk quarter, and will probably be the coin the people really look at when it shows up in their change. Unlike the plethora of natural vistas with wildlife (Not that I'm pointing any fingers .... WASHINGTON).

Rating A (Way Cool)

Chickasaw National Recreation Area - Oklahoma

This is the tough thing about giving every state their own National Park quarter - not every state has a National Park, and even when you spread it out to include memorials and recreational areas things are still pretty thin on the ground.

Case in point, Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City National Memorial would have been most dramatic and meaningful, but the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is still a raw wound in the American psyche, even 15 years later. Fort Smith is part of the Trail of Tears, and Washita battlefield commemorates Custer's attack on Black Kettle's Camp. Neither of the two is great grist for national coinage.

So, Chickasaw, which the National Park booklet describes as "An Oklahoma Oasis" (which, of course, says something about the rest of Oklahoma). It is a nice, verdant park with mineral springs and creeks and not a lot as a stand-out feature. Except, maybe, for the Lincoln Bridge, depicted here. Built in 1909 to celebrate the centennial of President Lincoln's birth (giving us the Civil War trifecta with this year's coins), the bridge itself just celebrated ITS centennial, making it a favorite as a historical feature. So that's why a coin for Oklahoma has a very un-arch-typical Oklahoma scene.

The coin itself is not horrible at all. It actually has a sends of balance from left to right with the river banks, and from top to bottom with the mirrored white space of stream and sky. The addition of the birds in flight both underscores native wildlife (which must have been in the design document for a lot of these coins). The bridge melds into the treeline behind it, but may come out better in the final casting. In short, it is a completely suitable rendering of a relatively obscure and traditional feature. And it still better than the West Virgina state quarter, another coin-with-a-bridge.

Rating B (Not bad, but when it is all said and done, it is STILL just a bridge).

And that's it for this year. Tune in next year for the "All Points of the Compass" edition - Maine, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and, um, New Mexico (OK, one of them would have to be more in the center).

More later,