Lake Norman & Mooresville

This art professor is a mint master

Jamie Franki, a UNCC professor in the Department of Art and Art History, designed a commemorative medal in honor of the William States Lee College of Engineering’s 50th anniversary.
Jamie Franki, a UNCC professor in the Department of Art and Art History, designed a commemorative medal in honor of the William States Lee College of Engineering’s 50th anniversary. UNC Charlotte

When UNC Charlotte’s William State Lee College of Engineering wanted to honor its 50th anniversary with a commemorative medal, college leaders went straight to one of the country’s leading authorities on coin and medal design.

All it required was writing a cross-campus email.

UNCC professor Jamie Franki, whose artwork likely has reached your pocket in the last 10 years in the form of a U.S. nickel, was commissioned to design the College of Engineering’s medal.

The college has held several events to recognize this milestone, but the medal represents something tangible that could last a lifetime. The medals are on sale to the public; proceeds will be used to provide scholarships to UNCC engineering students.

“As we looked around and thought about it, we thought we have a talented artist who does commemorative medals and coins,” said Ronald Smelser, College of Engineering professor and associate dean. “Why don’t we see if we can get Jamie to do a medal for us so we can offer it to our alumni and do something that will have lasting value.”

Franki, 54, has taught at UNCC for 20 years and has been a college/university professor for 30 years. A trained sculptor and magazine illustrator and publication designer, Franki has been creating designs for coins and medals since 2004.

This is the first time Franki, a tenured professor in the Department of Art and Art History, has produced anything for his home university. There aren’t many people like him in the country, he says.

“There are more NFL starting quarterbacks (32) than there are coin designers,” said Franki.

Before 2004, Franki jokes that the only concern he had for coins was being “an avid spender” of them. But a contest by the U.S. Mint helped flip his interest.

Franki was tabbed for the mint’s Artistic Infusion Program, in which he designed a bison nickel for the mint’s Westward Journey series. In 2006, Franki designed a nickel that included an image of Thomas Jefferson facing forward, a first for a U.S. coin.

Some of Franki’s proudest moments are when he handles one of the coins he helped design and gets to tell people about it.

“It’s like the lottery every time,” he said. “Sometimes I smile and put it in my pocket. Other times I talk with the cashier and say ‘Do you know anything about this coin? I designed it in Concord, North Carolina.’ Sometimes people don’t believe me. I occasionally get the raised eyebrow. But most people are excited about it.”

Over the last 10 years, Franki has gained a reputation for producing coins and medals for corporate and individual interests. When he was commissioned to design the engineering medal, college leaders helped him make heads and tails of the images they desired.

On the front, they chose an image of William States (“Bill”) Lee, the former Duke Energy executive for whom the College of Engineering is named. On the back, Franki was interested in symbols that represented the college.

Franki chose to craft an image of a plumb-bob as a key engineering tool and a palladian window like one you will find at the Duke Centennial Hall that houses the College of Engineering. He also carved five words that are key to the college’s mission statement: design, create, build, apply, and visualize.

After completing his design, Franki finished the project with schematic drawings, creating a clay sculpture, and constructing a plaster sculpture. He shipped it to the Metal Craft Mint in Green Bay, Wis., to produce the final product.

The mint produced two medals: a 3-inch bronze version, and a 1  1/2 -inch silver medal. One hundred of each were made.

Franki says he’s hoping to get more creative opportunities within the UNCC community.

“I’m hoping to share my skills and experience with coin and medal design with other departments at the university,” he said. “I see it as the perfect way of providing service and giving back to the university.”

Joe Habina is a freelance writer: