University City

UNCC art professor is a heavy medal star

Jamie Franki, an associate art professor at UNC Charlotte, is riding a wave of popularity.

As a designer of coins and medals, he's seen his work reproduced by the millions, but he's also watched as pieces he painstakingly toiled over were cast aside, never making it past the initial clay form.

His latest test of popularity is playing out on Facebook and Twitter, as he vies with 167 other contestants, each hoping to have his or her design struck as the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games medal.

Public voting ends June 30, when a committee takes over to make the final decision. Franki's design, a mix of fire and ice in a double helix, as if it were depicting the Olympic torch's DNA makeup, has earned 212 votes so far, leaving him ranked 25.

Long odds, he admits, but part of the game.

"The math is such that when one gets chosen, everyone else doesn't," he said. "You have to be thick-skinned. Sometimes you win and sometimes you play again tomorrow."

Franki, 49, has won plenty of times. His most well-known achievement came in 2005, when his design for the U.S. bison nickel triumphed over other national artists and was cast 936 million times by the U.S. Mint.

"For a while, the phone was really off the hook," said Franki, whose studio sits in a renovated mill house on McGill Street in Concord.

The city rolled out its best red carpet for the coin-making celebrity then. The mayor of Concord gave him an honorary key, and local organizers sought him out for the city's big parade.

"They put me in a '52 convertible red Bel Air, doing the Jackie O wave down Union Street," said Franki. "Some lady came up to me and said, 'Hey, are you supposed to be somebody?'"

He is well-known in the coin world. The bison design went on to earn a Coin of the Year award. "It's like the Oscars for coins," said Franki.

Bison nickels can be hard to locate now because collectors hoarded them shortly after they were made. The best bet may be to root around beneath a sofa cushion.

The flawed ones have become even more valuable. That is often the case, but it baffles an artist like Franki. "Can you imagine going to a car lot and saying, 'I'll take that Camry with the dent in it?'"

Six years have passed since the first bison nickel was struck, and Franki is ready to move on. "People used to refer to me as 'the nickel guy,' and while I appreciate that ... I still have plenty of brain cells and ticks on the clock."

His medal creations have become a success on their own. In 2008, the U.S. Olympic Committee selected his design for the Order of Ikkos medallion, a new medal created for winning athletes to present to the coach of their choice. The honor inducts the coach into the Order of Ikkos, named after Ikkos of Tarentum, the first Olympic coach in ancient Greece.

The heavy medals, made of nickel and silver, weigh just less than a pound, a noticeable weight when placed around the neck.

"I think it should weigh a lot," said Franki. "I think it should remind you that you did something that's lasting. Remember that, for that moment in time, you were amazing."