Joseph Menna brings his unique portfolio of talents to the position of chief engraver

On February 4, 2019, United States Mint Director David J. Ryder announced that the new chief engraver of the Mint will be Joseph (Joe) Menna.

Menna’s work for the U.S. Mint is quite extensive, distinguishing himself with his skillful designs displayed on various Congressional Gold Medals and coins including Presidential dollars, the latter of which brought legendary figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to life once again.

While Menna is known to the numismatic community as a prolific designer and sculptor of U.S. coins and medals, he is perhaps known by many more fans for his work in the world of pop-culture geekdom, resuscitating the likes of Darth Maul from Star Wars (after his unfortunate bisection), Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, and the Joker in the form of toys, action figures, or collectible statues.

Menna has used his talents for sculpting by means of the virtual chisel for over a decade and a half, long before 3-D printing technology became widely known.

Not to knock any of the fantastic work of previous chief engravers at the Mint, but Menna might just be our coolest chief engraver yet.

In Menna’s own words:

I’m a lifelong card-carrying comics geek.

Menna at work at the Philadelphia Mint. Hover to zoom.

Menna has also turned himself into something of a work of art, bearing tattoos of characters from Star Wars and Dr. Who. His talents in the realm of sculpting icons of pop culture have placed him in high demand with companies like DC Collectibles, Dark Horse Comics, and McFarlane Toys.

Alongside his fascination with fantasy and pop culture, Menna prefers a more realistic art style, and praises the emphasis in realism at St. Petersburg’s Steiglitz Academy as “better than anything in the West.” He attended the Academy to study sculpture after his education at the New York Academy of Art in 1994.

While the West appears to be embracing more abstract art at the moment, Menna’s commercial success in the realm of realism suggests that a new appreciation for the style may be on the horizon once again.

A common complaint by collectors of U.S. coins a decade ago was that modern designs tend to look too abstract or cartoonish. It would be a work of profound irony if a comic-book enthusiast headed a new movement for realism in United States coin designs.

Menna’s digitally sculpted statue of Darth Maul for Gentle Giant Ltd.

Peter Mucha, in a March 2014 article on the Philadelphia Inquirer, described this contradiction in Menna’s focus:

“Paradoxically, fantasy has long been fueled by realism – witness the scars, the veins, the bulging muscles, the textures of textiles of Menna’s creations. The more vivid, the more beautiful the dream, the scarier the nightmare.”

Menna’s reverse design of the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Park America the Beautiful quarter, which won a COTY award in the category of Best Circulating Coin.

Menna’s usage of programs like FreeForm and ZBrush are described by him as “A completely different medium. . . . It’s not like sculpting and it’s not like drawing.” After Menna finishes his digital creations, they are typically sent to be 3-D printed at Jason Wires Productions near Atlanta, Georgia. Menna has been ahead of the curve in digital sculpting for years, and he was the Mint’s first full-time digital artist. He has also been recognized several times by Krause Publications for Coin of the Year awards, one of which being in the category of Best Circulating Coin for his reverse design of the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Park quarter.

Susan Gamble’s reverse design of the 2015 Kisatchie National Forest America the Beautiful quarter, which won a COTY award in the category of Best Circulating Coin. Menna sculpted the design.

Another, in the same category, was for the reverse of the 2013 Kisatche National Forest quarter, which Menna sculpted, but was designed by Susan Gamble. Not only has he been able to masterfully sculpt designs conceived by other artists, but he has created and sculpted many of his own from scratch.

From left to right: Joe Menna, Dennis Tucker, and Q. David Bowers at the Philadelphia Mint in 2013.

Menna is already well known to the world of numismatic publishing. Whitman Publishing’s numismatic director, Q. David Bowers, and publisher, Dennis Tucker, have met with Menna and other medallic sculptors over the years, while he has been hard at work at the Philadelphia Mint.

The new design of the cent after 2010. Menna’s initials can be seen under the scroll on the right side of the shield.

Menna is featured in Whitman’s new third edition of the Guide Book of Lincoln Cents as the sculptor of Lyndall Bass’s “Union Shield” design, featured from 2010 to date. He was also noted in Bowers’s Guide Book of the United States Mint. Tucker wrote about Menna’s work in his book American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date. His individual designs have also been covered in a variety of Internet sources, including Coin World, Coin Update, and Mint News Blog.

John M. Mercanti.

John M. Mercanti, the preceding chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, who retired in 2010, devoted a section of his book American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program to digital technology. In chapter 2, “Behind the Scenes at the U.S. Mint,” he recalls being given a mandate, in jest, in the early 2000s:

Those machines [Janvier reduction lathes and other older technology] will go to the Smithsonian, or you will.

Mercanti went on to describe the later hiring of Joseph Menna:

The decision was made to find [a digital sculptor], and [engineer Steve Antonucci] did. He found a young sculptor by the name of Joseph Menna, who was working at the Johnson Atelier in Princeton, New Jersey. He joined the Mint’s staff in 2005. As it turned out, Joe was just what the doctor ordered. He was classically trained in sculpture here in America and studied for some years in Russia, where he met his wife. He had been working at the Johnson Atelier using the technology for some time. He became a teacher and a mentor to the Mint’s staff in everything related to digital sculpting. I nicknamed him the “Yoda” of the new technology.

Freeform and the related programs we used for modeling are geometric modeling disciplines. Joe knew his way around them better than anyone. We isolated him and allowed him to experiment with various programs. Eventually he was modeling portraits in virtual reality. His knowledge, inquisitiveness, and ability to adapt and utilize multiple programs ultimately enabled us to move forward. He became the cornerstone of the sculpting department.

High praise from Menna’s predecessor and one of the most prolific engravers and designers of modern Mint history! John Mercanti’s experience at the Mint started under the mentorship of Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro, who had worked with John R. Sinnock and Gilroy Roberts. Mercanti also worked under Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones (the last chief engraver to be presidentially appointed).

The obverse of the 9/11 Flight 93 Congressional Gold Medal, designed and sculpted by Menna.

Menna has been a frequent attendee (by phone) of the meetings of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, a public body that advises the secretary of the Treasury on coinage and medal designs. His work has been called out for special attention by the Committee many times in recent years. In a June 2018 meeting, Dennis Tucker, serving as the CCAC’s numismatic specialist, praised Menna’s design and sculpture of the 9/11 Flight 93 Congressional Gold Medal. “It has a boldly sculpted foreground and then a delicate, almost ghostly background,” Tucker noted while encouraging the Mint’s artists to take the same approach with the 2020 Weir Farm quarter dollar.

Menna sculpted the reverse of the 2018 Voyageurs National Park quarter.

In that same meeting, committee member Donald Scarinci held up Menna’s work on the 2018 Voyageurs National Park quarter as an example of strong sculpture enhancing the design by Patricia Lucas-Morris.

Joe Menna has the potential to continue leading considerable innovation at the Mint as chief engraver with his modern digital sculpting techniques mixed with an appreciation for classical realism. While perhaps not yet as well-known to the numismatic community as he is to the pop-culture community, his appointment as chief engraver will likely change this dynamic. Furthermore, the overlap between these two communities represented by Menna’s appointment will likely benefit both hobbies, which share a great deal in common, as both items of pop culture and coins are highly collectible. If you are a fan of realism on United States coins and medals, it is likely that your passion will be respected with Joe Menna as chief engraver.

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