(Soundbite of coins dropping into vending machine)
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
I'm thirsty and in a hurry, so I've just gotten myself a soda from the vending machine here at NPR, and I got 75 cents in change. Humor me for a minute and take out a quarter, and look at it closely, the head side. That really familiar profile of George Washington, we've all seen it a million times, but if you think about it for a minute, it's a classical relief sculpture on a tiny, little, round canvas.
The highest point on this relief is just behind George Washington's ear, in his hair. I just learned that fact this week. And the guy who taught me is named John Mercanti. He guides the artists at the U.S. Mint in downtown Philadelphia.
Mr. JOHN MERCANTI (Chief Engraver, United States Mint): When they do a portrait, I want them to know exactly what the whole muscle structure in the face is, orbicularis oculi, orbicularis oris. They have to know that, and they have to study it.
ROBERTS: Mercanti's official title is chief engraver. But more than that, he's responsible for shepherding his artists through the big transition to digital sculpting. At the same time, they must honor the hallmarks of classical art.
So think of John Mercanti as the Mint's artistic director, one whose standards are so high - well, let's put it this way. The very first thing you see when you get off the elevator by Mercanti's office is the intimidating head of Michelangelo's David staring you down.
Mr. MERCANTI: It's an amazing piece. And sometimes, my sculptors will come out, and they'll just stand in awe of the thing.
ROBERTS: Every single American coin is sculpted here. A lot of the coins are minted in this building, too, at a really noisy factory downstairs.
Have you still got that quarter in your hand? Look to see if there's a tiny P on it, right there behind Washington's ponytail. That's the mint mark for Philadelphia. Once upon a time, John Mercanti actually stamped those on the metal molds by hand.
Mr. MERCANTI: We had one engraver here at the time who would strike every one 15 times, and you could just sit - I'd sit at the desk and listen one, two, three, 15 times. I got it down to one, boom. I said I can't do that, boom. So I began hitting it one time.
ROBERTS: Steel punches have long ago been replaced by computers here. Mercanti keeps his around for sentimental reasons, but he's not nostalgic for the old days, he's open to inspiration from the most unlikely sources.
(Soundbite of film, "Shrek")
Mr. Mike Myers (Actor): (As Shrek) Ogres. Yes.
Unidentified Woman (Actress): (As character) Not that there's anything wrong with that.
ROBERTS: That's right, "Shrek." It was a DVD special feature that convinced Mercanti to call in a Hollywood special-effects expert to come teach the Mint artists how to sculpt in virtual reality. Don't worry about ogres on your coins, though. Remember that head of Michelangelo's David in the hallway? It's not just there for inspiration, it's a test.
Mr. MERCANTI: Every new apprentice or every young sculptor that comes in, that statue will be taken from the hallway, will be set in the office next door. And that person will sit at the computer and begin sculpting it. And until they sculpt it, they cannot move to the next level.
ROBERTS: Yup, every apprentice has to sculpt like Michelangelo in virtual reality. Mercanti knows he sets high standards for excellence. That's why he's so impressed when his artists exceed them.
Ms. PHEBE HEMPHILL (Sculptor, United States Mint): My name is Phebe Hemphill. And I'm a sculptor, engraver or a medallic artist here at the U.S. Mint.
ROBERTS: Phebe Hemphill's cubicle is decorated with action figures, some of which she sculpted herself. Like a lot of artists here, she used to work in the toy industry. On her easel sits a fat plaster disc, about the size of a dinner plate. It's the sculptural model of the Congressional gold medal for the Tuskegee Airmen.
The textures in the Tuskegee Airmen medal, there are so many different ones. There's feathers, there's leather, there's facial hair, there's even the lambskin collar. What sort of tool did you use to make that collar? Do you remember?
Ms. HEMPHILL: I think I used - I have a bunch of dental tools that I've collected over the years. So I have all these kind of weird dental, you know, things that you probably don't even want to go near. You know, you can kind of do anything if you just kind of get a pattern down and you know how to hit it in a certain way, and you kind of get a rhythm. There's a little fur there for you.
ROBERTS: So this tactile process, it's very different from working in a computer screen.
Ms. HEMPHILL: Yes. It's extremely satisfying as a sculptor to be able to do it with my hands and see it with my eyes under true lighting conditions. The computer is a little bit more removed. You're relying on the internal lighting conditions of the software to reveal the form.
Mr. JOE MENNA (Sculptor, United States Mint): I'm moving - on the screen, I'm moving around this portrait of William Henry Harrison. You can see that I'm removing material, just as if I was carving it in clay.
ROBERTS: That's medallic artist Joe Menna, one cubicle over from Phebe Hemphill. But instead of a drawer full of menacing dental tools, Joe designs and sculpts entirely with a computer. His boss calls him the Yoda of this technology.
Mr. MENNA: As I tap the tool here on the screen, you can see that I'm creating this stippled, almost like reptile-skin-type pattern.
ROBERTS: It looks like the lambskin collar of the Tuskegee Airmen medal that Phebe made.
Mr. MENNA: I'm not doing it as well as Phebe did.
ROBERTS: Menna says the technology, with its ability to zoom in on tiny detail or create any texture, gives him ultimate aesthetic control, and it's actually changing him as an artist.
Mr. MENNA: The cool thing about working digitally is that I can just control Z. I can just hit the undo button, and it all goes away. One time, I was working on a sculpture in my studio at home in clay, after having done this for years. And there I was, you know, standing there sculpting, and all of a sudden, my hand went to this phantom control Z button in space that didn't exist, and I was like, this is different. I mean, you know, somewhere the wires are connecting upstairs, and I guess I'm kind of evolving with this technology — or devolving, I don't know.
ROBERTS: Joe Menna wasn't always a computer convert. At another job, he staged a dramatic sculptural race against a computer to protest this technology. So he understands why, when he brought digital tools to the Mint, he met lot of resistance.
Mr. MENNA: Hostility, even. Oh, that'll never work. Oh no way. You know, all this stuff. When I first came here four years ago - you think you're going to be able to do this relief sculpture with this? I mean, you're crazy. Now it's like, wow, you did that? I say, yeah, I did that.
ROBERTS: Menna says whether or not an artist likes this technology is less about age and more about sensibility. He points to a picture opposite his computer - it's of the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel - and says Michelangelo would have loved these high-tech tools.
Mr. MENNA: If you can meet the Renaissance ideal of, say, being able to draw or sculpt a three-dimensional figure from your imagination, then this is the kind of thing that's going to work for you because you're literally just pulling stuff out of the ether, and you know, making pixels and electrons into real things.
ROBERTS: Joe Menna's enthusiasm for the technology has been gaining converts at the Mint, and there may come a day when there is no more clay and plaster here. But Chief Engraver John Mercanti knows the important things will endure.
Mr. MERCANTI: I'm committed to using classical techniques. Even though we're moving into the digital era, we still maintain the classical psychology.
ROBERTS: And if Mercanti's artists are ever tempted to stray, there's that imposing enforcer in the hallway: Michelangelo's David.
This piece was produced by Tina Tennyson(ph). You can get a look at Phebe Hemphill's dental tools and Joe Menna's digital sculpting on our Web site, npr.org.