MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Elana Hagler’s grandmother, an avid coin collector when she lived in Russia, has a special gift coming soon.
“One of the things that I’m most excited to be able to do is to put a coin in her hand,” said Hagler, an award-winning artist who is an assistant professor of art at Alabama State University.
Hagler had a major role in the design of an upcoming 2020 presidential $1 coin from the U.S. Mint. The coin will feature her drawing of President George H.W. Bush.
The new Bush presidential coin will be released later this year as a collector’s item. The U.S. Mint has been producing $1 gold coins honoring late presidents since 2007.
“I’ve been painting and drawing for a really long time, but I never imagined doing coin design,” Hagler said.
FINDING HER BLISS
Hagler, a mother of two living in Montgomery, has work that’s been shown in national and international exhibits. Locally, some of her still life paintings and oil portraits can be seen at Stonehenge Gallery.
Her path into art is a global journey that started when classmates would sit for her as she painted and drew them. Even then, she loved portraits.
But that didn’t seem like a calling she was destined for.
Like her grandmother, Hagler is an immigrant. Before she was born, Hagler’s family journeyed from Russia to Israel in 1976. In 1985, when Hagler was 5, her mother and grandparents left Tel Aviv, Israel, for the United States. They found a new home in Los Angeles, where she was raised and given a specific version of the American Dream to reach for.
“I was going to go the medical route, because that’s what was expected of me,” she said. “My family had this sense that as immigrants we don’t have the luxury to pursue our dreams. We have to take a sensible career path, which I understand. They did not come from a place of stability.”
Hagler was undertaking a double major in neuroscience and psychology at Brandeis University in Boston when she decided she couldn’t deny her artistic side any longer. At age 20, after finishing her requirements for psychology, she dropped neuroscience and switched to art.
“I had to come to grips with, ‘OK, I’m going to dreadfully disappoint my family and choose to follow my bliss,’ ” Hagler said.
Her training didn’t go to waste. Hagler said there’s a lot of crossover between neuroscience, psychology and perceptual painting. She said her art is really about asking questions, observing and responding.
“It’s still in a sense the scientific method,” she said. “It’s still this process of issuing a query and then opening yourself up to seeking answers.”
She had many answers to seek, especially in terms of her style. In the early 2000s she said art with any kind of realism was considered behind the times.
“It felt like I was kind of born a dinosaur because I was actually interested in the way people looked,” she said.
She studied in Umbria, Italy, for three summers, and met Israel Hershberg, the founder of the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel. She worked and saved, and eventually was able to go to Jerusalem for two years of study in Hershberg’s master class.
“I don’t know what on earth I’d be doing if I didn’t go there,” Hagler said.
THE BUSH COIN
A glance at her original Bush drawing and the rendering of what it will look like on the coin shows a few minor differences. The process was a mix of traditional and digital media. She uploaded an image of the finished hand drawing into her computer to complete the design.
“There was this whole separate issue of coins that I had to learn about, and I love it,” Hagler said. “I love the exacting nature of this tiny little canvas and planning for that.”
It took a lot of planning to get to this point. After a six-month application process, Hagler was accepted into the U.S. Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program in 2019, one of 27 artists from a national pool.
“Starting this program, it felt like I had to learn so much. It felt like becoming a student again,” Hagler said.
From this group of artists, more than one is selected to submit work on each U.S. Mint coin project.
“I was happy that I got put on (the Bush coin) because it’s a portrait, and they know I like to do portraits,” she said.
Her Bush drawing was selected by all three of the approval groups - the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the CCAC (Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee), and the Bush family - before getting the final nod from Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.
“The neat thing that I discovered recently is that (President George H.W. Bush’s) son, the second President Bush, has been painting,” Hagler said. “He just came out with a new book of his paintings (“Out of Many, One”), and it’s all about immigrants and the contributions immigrants make to America. It felt somehow more significant that I got the chance to do the portrait of his father.”
As for her own immigrant family, Hagler said they’ve been very supportive of her life in the arts. Her grandmother has already given Hagler a gift worth far more than the coin she will receive.
“I think one of the nicest things is my grandmother saying, ‘You were right not to be a doctor after all,’” Hagler said.
PRESIDENTIAL COIN FACTS
- Only deceased presidents can be considered for $1 gold coins by the U.S. Mint.
- The presidential coins are identical to the Sacagawea Golden Dollar and the Native American $1 Coins.
- Mint chief engraver Joseph Menna sculpted Hagler’s design of Bush.
- The Bush coin’s reverse side features a rendition of the Statue of Liberty, designed and sculpted by Don Everhart.
- The inscriptions “2020,” “E Pluribus Unum” and the mint-mark are incused on the coin’s edge.
- The late First Lady Barbara Bush is also being honored by the U.S. Mint with a First Spouse gold coin. This coin went on sale Aug. 20.
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