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NLM Artist Designs New Nickel

By Belle Waring

If he were a rap star, would Joe Fitzgerald be known as "Five Cent?" Fitzgerald, NLM's chief of graphics, has made a piece of art that will touch everybody in America.

His award-winning design for the new nickel, recently unveiled at the U.S. Mint Bldg. in Washington, D.C., shows a tight close-up of Thomas Jefferson's profile and "Liberty" in Jefferson's own script. The word looks alive, as if floating on Jefferson's breath — as if uttered before our eyes.

There's never been another coin like it.

"I honestly thought it had no chance of winning, because it doesn't show the whole head," says Fitzgerald. "But if you see just the face, you get more of a feel for the person, his intellect. People will take it out of their pockets and say, 'Who is this? What have they done to my money?'"

What they've done is to create the first completely redesigned nickel since 1938, and now Fitzgerald is the 25th person in the history of the Republic to execute a design for the front of a circulating coin. At the Mint on Sept. 16, Fitzgerald, along with mint sculptor and engraver Don Everhart, received his award.

NLM graphic artist Joe Fitzgerald poses at the Mint between reproductions of the two faces of his award-winning design for the new nickel.

"The people at the Mint were great," says Fitzgerald. "I've never had so much fun in any paid activity."

Not to diss his day job. "I've enjoyed my 23 years at NIH, where I work with some of the most wonderful people in the world. This job has provided me with a tremendous amount of experience." Still, a good artist knows when to stop, and next spring Fitzgerald will retire after 33 years of government service.

A graduate of the University of Maryland and a fifth generation Washingtonian, Fitzgerald always knew he wanted to be an artist. Influences are Degas, Monet, Turner, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. ("He rips himself open for you," Fitzgerald says of the latter.)

Fitzgerald himself paints portraits and landscapes in lush and subtle pastels.

Happily, on his last week of employment in May 2005, he'll have a retrospective at the Foxhall Gallery in Washington. Afterwards he plans to paint and to travel with his wife, Jean Fitzgerald, a photographer and artist.

"I start with an abstract idea in my head and then I try to get my artwork to match," he says. "Artists see things in different ways because if you see them the same way as all the others, you're not committing art." And in his office, art is everywhere. His basement space in the Lister Hill Center emanates light and color from framed posters of his one-man shows, prints, sculptures, a jack-in-the-box and snapshots of his treasured pug, Fabio.

His paintings hang in collections as diverse as the U.S. Embassy to Turkey, the Hyatt Hotels and Judge Robert Bork.

But the new nickel is art with a difference.

The drawing of Jefferson is just one side of the coin. On the back is the tree-lined view of the ocean as seen by Lewis and Clark with the accompanying text, "Ocean in view! O the joy!" It's a stirring sight to the explorers.

And seeing his designs on actual U.S. nickels in 2005 will be a stirring sight for Fitzgerald "because people will collect coins, pass them on to their children and store them in banks and vaults. These little sculptures will last for thousands of years."

When you get that new nickel, check for the initials "JF" — that'll be Joe Fitzgerald, NLM's favorite artist.

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