Medallic and numismatic art is one that combines artistry and technical skill. Not only was Allen trained in the technicalities of this art as a teenager in the jewelry factories of Attleboro, but he was also trained in the artistry of the work by Bela Lyon Pratt, one of the two most famous numismatists of the day, the second was Pratt’s teacher Augustus St. Gaudens. On his own, Allen had an extraordinary ability to create depth and detail in extremely low relief. This medal is an example. As is the custom, two designs are created to complement each other on opposite sides of the medal or coin.
First the artist creates sketches of his opposing designs on paper or directly on clay, incorporating a design and lettering. The space available is very small, so the design must be reduced to the simplest and clearest elements. The medal is made first in an oversized original and reduced to the final size by the medal maker. The advantage of working oversize is that the important details that make the image realistic can be refined. The first copy is modeled by adding tiny pellets of clay then shaping and carving with sculptor’s tools to achieve the desired result. The central image is usually done first, then the lettering added around it.
Once the sculptor determines that the work is perfect he casts it in plaster by first coating the clay with a release agent, sealing the edge with a “fence,” mixing the plaster carefully to prevent air bubbles then coating the relief, slowly and carefully building up the thickness. When it is dry, it may be baked to harden it. So now the “positive” clay becomes the “negative” plaster. Here the artist has the opportunity to make refinements to the design. The process is then repeated, the negative plaster coated with the release agent and covered with another layer of plaster which, when lifted off, becomes a “positive” again. This is the copy that is sent to the medal maker for reduction and production. A steel die is “cut” of the reduction and used to “strike” the final copies in metal for distribution. The artisans who cut the dies were called “sculptors in steel.” (Attleboro Area Industrial Museum)
Computers do that job now so, sadly, the art has been lost.
View Allen’s BSO Commemorative Medal and medallions produced as a student.