Chester Martin Remembers His Career As An Artist - The People Who Helped

Monday, October 23, 2017 - by Chester Martin

My purpose in writing this story is to give credit to all the good people - and agencies - who have helped me along my way, starting with MY PARENTS, and  followed later by my lovely wife of over 54 years, the former Patricia Ann Parnell, of Red Bank. She has been at my side to enjoy every twist and turn of the long road. And I was helped by some wonderful teachers in the Chattanooga school system.

Miss Gladys Newcomb taught her art classes so well that I was smitten by that subject for the rest of my life!  That was at Brainerd Junior High School  in the mid-1940's.

(A full 70 years ago!)  Now I am just days away from my 83rd birthday and feel a debt of deep gratitude to her for all my career. From her classes down to this very day I have never wanted to do anything else but art!

In class, Miss Newcomb would take a pad of white paper, quickly dash some clear water onto it, leaving lots of dry space, and then apply a brushload of blue watercolor paint at the top and work down the sheet. The dry areas of paper remained white, while the wet areas received the blue "sky" color, and in no time flat she had painted a very convincing sky filled with puffy white clouds. All of us gaped at the spectacular results! In another demo she painted a flawless blue sky using the same principle. I had tried watercolors at home like most kids, getting totally unacceptable results. But Miss Newcomb's demos changed all that negativity;  she showed us that success could be had, so I went home and practiced on my own.

Thanks also for the genuine interest of Mrs. Annalee Huffaker, music teacher at Brainerd Junior High (and later at City HS) who recognized my talent for art, and directed me toward Kirkman Vocational High School, where her husband, Frank Huffaker, was principal. She told me about the new art teacher whom her husband had personally chosen. I was interested, and entered that school for all four years, taking art classes for half of each academic day. Stephen A. Harding was the teacher, born in New York City, and with a very broad outlook on both art and life in general. He made sure his students were aware of every opportunity to show their work, and he took us to see all the local art shows - especially those by University of Chattanooga students, and the nationally sponsored Scholastic Art shows held at Lovemans Department Store annually.

Transparent watercolor had become my medium of choice, though at Kirkman I learned the advantages of painting in oils, a much more opaque medium, but I alternated between the two for many years. My work in the local poster industry (1960's and '70's) demanded the use of opaque media, but I became a member of the Tennessee Watercolor Society where I continued my use of transparent watercolor techniques. The TWS was a great help for many artists of the state.

Sometime before 1970 I realized it might be helpful to study 3-dimensional (sculptural) form.  That could help me with my 2-D painting, I thought, so I began to make small relief sculptures. I remember how in Miss Gail Hammond's Art History classes at the University of Chattanooga I had sat in class contemplating those black and white textbook photos of saints on cathedral portals in Europe and thinking about the skill it must have taken to do such dynamic art - especially in so unwielding a medium as stone. I could vaguely imagine myself doing it,  without realizing that I actually WOULD  be doing sculpture for half my life! (Though not in stone!) Miss Hammond, whose Masters degree was from the Art Institute of Chicago, also taught us about such American sculptors as Paul Manship, who was then at the height of his career. I was lucky to see a large showing of his work at the Smithsonian about 25 years ago.

Before reaching my own "sculptural" phase I won many local, regional, and national awards for painting. I was always winning prizes at such places as the Parthenon Gallery shows in Nashville (once I received their top Purchase Award!), and I won 2nd place for Tennessee in a medal contest sponsored by the new Franklin Mint, near Philadelphia. That entry was only in pencil, but my winning of 2nd place whetted my interest in the field of coins and medals. There was no one in Chattanooga who could help me with any knowledge of those things, so I soon discovered, and started taking a sculpture magazine, then called, "The National Sculpture Review", which had occasional announcements for medal competitions. One such competition was for a design to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina in 1981. I immediately took my family on vacation and I spent the entire time holed up making drawings to enter in that contest. And, very surprisingly, I WON - with strong competition from all the well-known established artists of New York and New England!  (It was a very attractive $10,000 award that was offered, btw!)  For that "win" I must be forever grateful to Mr. Joseph V. Noble, who was equally the Director of the Museum of the City of New York, AND of Brookgreen Gardens! He had the final say for selection of the Brookgreen Gardens medal. (And I was a total stranger to him and everyone else in the field at that time!) Folks, I have been very humble about that selection he made 35 years ago - for all the doors it has opened, and the richness it has brought to my life!

That 3-inch medal design was subsequently enlarged to a diameter of three feet (as per the contest Prospectus) and was placed in the permanent collection of Brookgreen Gardens (1981). It depicts a snail, whose shell is a spiral, sitting on a twisting vine, which is a spiral, and the snail looks out towards a spiral galaxy in space - fulfilling the theme, "The Natural World".  (When first set in place inside the Palmetto Garden area, I was bowled over to discover it was just across from a large work of Paul Manship's - the noted sculptor that Miss Gail Hammond had spoken of at the university years before! (see above). Mr. Noble, Brookgreen's Director, then commissioned me directly to do a Membership medal for the Gardens, which was issued in 1984, and is pictured with this story. It shows flora and fauna of South Carolina, with a raccoon on one side and palmetto palms on the other.

At about the same time, AMSA (the American Medallic Sculpture Association) was requested to supply a medal for World Food Day, 1984. It was the first time such a request had been made of  U.S. artists.  Dr. Alan Stahl, AMSA's President at the time, sent the entire membership all the necessary information. I entered the contest - and, very surprisingly, won again! There were no drawings involved in the selection process - only the two finished plasters which were sent to Rome, Italy for minting. The medals were struck in gold, silver, bronze, and aluminum, before world-wide distribution. I later heard from Mark Jones, then Keeper of the Medals at the British Museum, that they had collected a copy. I was astounded to be represented in such a superior collection! I must be forever grateful to Dr. Stahl for "getting the word out" about that contest!

I have personal letters from Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, long time Executive Director of the National Numismatic Collections of the Smithsonian, and from Cory Gillilland, Curator of the same National Numismatic Collection, acknowledging my donation of coins and medals to the Smithsonian.

Soon after all these events, two openings in the Sculpture and Engraving Division of the U.S. Mint (Philadelphia) became available in the 6-person department - a rarity! Dr. Alan Stahl, then Curator of Ancient Coins at the American Numismatic Society in New York City - and President of the American Medallic Sculpture Association - again disseminated the notice to the entire membership. The job announcement and application form arrived in the same  mailing, and, when I studied the job description, I kept shaking my head, thinking, "I could never do that!" The job application lay on my desk for several weeks before, at almost the last minute, I filled it out and mailed it in to the Mint. A few days later I had a long-distance call from Elizabeth Jones, then Chief Engraver of the U.S. My  application had gotten their attention and I was to bring actual samples of my work - plaster-work, bronze medals, and painting - for my interview. (They wanted to see a bit of everything I did).

Ms. Jones selected two of her Engravers to sit in on the interview and review my work. These two were Edgar Zell Steever, IV, and John Mercanti. Together, the three of them selected me as one of the two new Mint Engravers!  My head is still spinning with the excitement and disbelief I felt at the time! (Steever and I later were assigned to do a commemorative coin together - for the White House, 1792-1992. He sculptured the Mansion for the "heads" side, while I did the portrait of James Hoban - original White House architect - on the Reverse).

However, prior to my Mint career, I had attended a three-week "Medallic Art Workshop" at Pennsylvania State University. John Cook, a PSU Professor of over 30 years tenure, was the instigator of that workshop - a culmination of his lifetime of devotion to the field of Medallic Art. His invited faculty for that event came from many European countries; the Americas being represented by a Canadian artist. These represented the creme de la creme from European universities. Students came mainly from the continental U.S., but one came from Puerto Rico, while another came from Hawaii. Two women came from England - independent of one another. The tenor of these three weeks was very uplifting and contagious. No one wanted to go home!

I MUST give credit also to those wonderful sculptors whose great medals (and 3-D works)  I have admired only in magazines or other print media. Those would be Donal Hord, of San Diego, whose work captivated me to the extent I corresponded with his assistant, Homer Dana, and obtained some of the tools bearing his initials. Hord himself was long dead by this time, but I continue to admire his work - all done in the hardest materials available - diorite, rosewood, jade. You art students should Google his name and admire his (realistic) work. (Try to find his Angel of Peace at the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, done in 1958). I was also much influenced by the (medical) medals of Abram Belskie,  Anna Hyatt Huntington (co-founder of Brookgreen Gardens), Donald DeLue, Karen Worth,  Irving Mazze, Dora DePedery-Hunt (of Canada), Ed Grove, Jim Licaretz, Paul Jennewein, Ethel Painter Hood, Augustus St. Gaudens, (who designed some of our most fabulous U.S. gold and silver coinage), and the contemporary Eugene Daub, whose statue of Rosa Parks has only in the last few years been added to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Marcel Jovine and I both worked together on the "Eisenhower Home" side of a silver dollar - he went to Italy while I sculptured the house!  Don Everhart also did remarkably good work, both for the Franklin Mint and later the U.S.  Mint. All these  - and many others - have contributed in some way to my development as an artist. Leonda Finke, only recently deceased, was an esteemed president of the National Sculpture Society, a superior medalist, and inspiring leader. Perhaps the most dedicated medallic artist in the U.S. today is (Ms.) Mashiko Nakashima of New York City who has done more to promote Medallic Art than anyone I know. She has been a positive influence on my career as on all others in the field. She owns a gallery in New York, and online her address is,   medialia (dot) com   .

*          *         *

When I retired from the Philadelphia Mint I was surprisingly presented with the highest art award from the American Numismatic Association at Colorado Springs. It was a (real) gold medal, called the Numismatic Art Award for Excellence in Medallic Sculpture, presented at their 1993 convention in Baltimore.

In Chattanooga I have also had some successes - as for being asked to contribute my painting of Union Station for the cover of one of John Wilson's early books, Chattanooga's Story. I have seen that book both in Philadelphia, and at the famous "Stack's" book store in NYC. It is now deservedly  in re-print. Also in Chattanooga, back in the 1970's, I was commissioned by Fowler's to paint a large  mural for the Mountain City Club when the present facility was built. About 25 years later, however, they decided to change the decor, so that my mural bit the dust! Then, my large mural for Chattem met the same fate when they moved their headquarters from the foot of Lookout to Broad Street. And a third, smaller, mural for the former American National Bank (now Suntrust) branch at Lee Highway and Shallowford Road. It had extended across the entire tellers' area at the back of the building. (Wynston Bland, the building's contractor was an art aficionado, had paid my fee out of his own pocket!) The building underwent a total enlargement fairly recently and that mural also met its demise!  And I am NOT WHINING over these misfortunes, as I realize that even the top architects of the country frequently live to see their early works demolished. I was very glad to have each and every commission - and I appreciated the sale of every painting I sold, so have nothing but good memories of my home town. Bill Shores, the well-known picture framer (both father and son) allowed me to use their large shop windows for several of my earliest shows; it was unbelievable who signed the register, bought my work, and left nice messages, which I still have.

*          *          *

The field of art is very open-ended. You may come and go freely as you please, but for me it has been a straight line, ever since those early days at Miss Newcomb's art classes at "Brainerd Junior". (I only was out of the field for 4 years of military service,1956-1960). And just recently Mr. Philip Attwood, present Keeper of the Medals for the British Museum, acquired (by donation) five more examples of my medallic art - original porcelains, all done right here in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and fired in my own kiln. There you have proof that "age doesn't matter".

Who would/could have ever imagined that my path would lead down such a twisting trail, but with only one goal in mind? My parents were both dead and gone before their son showed any inkling of what what lay ahead. So my only words for aspiring artists is to always keep your options open and take advantage of whatever comes your way.  Be thankful for the good parents and teachers that I hope you have, that they may guide you (gently) in the right direction.

Oops! I forgot to mention that within the past year and a half I have been a finalist in two U.S. Mint competitions, open to any artist, 18 or over, in the country. The first was for a silver dollar commemorating the centennial of the end of World War I - to be issued next year (2018) to coincide with the Armistice signing celebration. Second contest was for Breast Cancer Awareness, to be struck in pink silver!  I did not win either contest but got $1,000.00 for each entry. There were to be up to 20 entrants selected for each contest, and no winners have been announced as of yet. If YOU want to try to design a U.S. coin, keep watch on the Mint's website as there are still more good commemorative events coming up soon.

...and THANK YOU, John Wilson for this great birthday present - the privilege of writing my own story and giving credit where credit was due.

* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.

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