Medallic Art

I wanted to take a moment to congratulate the winners of the first Bas Relief Exhibition held by the Realistic Equine Sculpture Society (RESS). The organization has encouraged those interested in equine sculpture to create and sponsor special exhibition awards, and since I was so tickled they were recognizing relief work that I asked to give one for the “Best Narrative”. My winner was Kelly Savage’s Fly Fishing, pictured above. (Kelly is another blogger, too, and I’ve added her link to the blogs list here. It’s a really neat one, so check it out!)

Judging the entries reminded me that I had never posted about the medallic art exhibition I attended at Brookgreen Gardens this past spring. Perhaps now is a good time!

I went to the exhibition not quite knowing what to expect. Bas relief seems to be a dying art – even more so than earthenware slip-casting! I’ve searched for a society or organization, or even just literature on the art form, without finding much that is current. My hope was that, in viewing the exhibit, I might find some sign that there were actually artists still creating realistic relief sculpture.


(left to right) Athenian Owls, by Julian Hoke Harris; Honor to Socrates, by Robert Weinman; Eskimo Dog Team, by Patricia Verani

What I found was that while we in the equine collectibles community tend to call all relief art “medallions” (when we aren’t using the informal “cookie”, that is!), in the artistic community the term has a slightly more specific meaning. Medallions are pieces of relief art that are small enough to be comfortably held in the hand. In that, all but the largest of our “medallions” would qualify. Where medallic art differs is that the design is two-sided, and almost always struck in medal.

These pictures illustrate each step in the process of striking the medallion. It starts with a blank bronze disc, called a planchet. The image to the right of that is the first strike. As you can see, much of the detail is not yet present. (You can click on the picture to get the larger image.) The piece is then struck three more times (the next three images). The piece is then trimmed – each strike creates more ‘flash’ around the rim – and given a patina. It was neat to see these step-by-step examples. Certainly a very different process than dealing with fragile greenware. We don’t do striking, that’s for sure!

The other aspect that I mentioned before as being different was that these pieces are designed to be two-sided, much like oversized coins. To my knowledge, no one in our industry has made something like that. As I was looking at the exhibition displays, I could see why. Most of the pieces were displayed upright on clear stands. (I wish I could find some that small and that quality.) The image on the reverse was mostly hidden.

In fact, the only practical way to display both sides was to place two of the same one side by side. Practical, I suppose, for a museum or gallery that has two copies, but not so much for the average collector!

Still it was an interesting concept. Many of the artists did really neat things with the reverse side of their pieces. The eskimo dogs above, for example, flip upside-down on the reverse and become a group of domestic camels. Many of the artists also made creative use of cut-outs in their designs.


(left to right) Sister Cities, by Tuck Landland; Capture/Escape, by Richard McDermott Miller; The Sculptor and The Garden, by Alex Shagin.

While the exhibit was more limited in scope (particularly in medium) than I had hoped, it gave me a lot to think about. I’m not sure there is any real market for two-sided designs in our community, especially not when most of our pieces are also offered in resin for cold-painting. But it did have me thinking more three-dimensionally about the designs, as well as thinking about negative space in the form of cut-outs. And while the medallion societies that spurred the creation of many of the pieces in the exhibit are no longer around, I have to wonder if there are other pockets of relief artists out there much like ours. Surely equine sculptors aren’t the only ones who have found it interesting to work in relief.

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2 Responses to Medallic Art

  1. Mel Miller July 11, 2008 at 5:49 am #

    Ohhh, so much to think about here. Thank you Lesli!

  2. Diane July 11, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this Lesli! Having a bit of a rough time now, and this was a nice distraction, as I’ve been a enthusiast of bas relif medallions since I was a child and came across a book on them in the library. I love the idea of having a sculpture you can hold in the palm of your hand!

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