Coins have defined the majority of Seattle sculptor Heidi Wastweet's past, and now she gets to design the future of the United States' coins.

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In the rundown basement of Seattle’s former Immigration and Customs Enforcement building is the studio of Heidi Wastweet, a 42-year-old sculptor who believes coins are exchangeable art.

Foot-long circular plaster casts of coins, etched with the faces of historic American heroes, are propped against a corner. Translucent paper tracings of portraits lie scattered on a worktable. Wastweet’s prized commissions — a currency coin for the Darfur region of Sudan, the Dean’s Award for the University of Washington law school, a replica of the 1964 peace dollar — glint from a wooden shelf.

Wastweet is a Seattle sculptor and medallic artist, but one of her passions is to design money — coins, specifically. Wastweet began designing coins when she was 18 at a private mint in Idaho, then switched to a different mint based in Las Vegas before going freelance. Since the late 80s, Wastweet has created more than 1,000 coins, medals and tokens.

Coins have defined the majority of Wastweet’s past, and now she gets to design the future of the United States’ coins. Wastweet was appointed in March last year to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, an unpaid 11-member panel that reviews the work of the U.S. Mint and advises the Treasury about what designs make it onto the billions of coins circulated throughout America each day.

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Coins may be viewed as chump change, says Wastweet, but the image on a penny, nickel or quarter can influence the way we and the world view America.

“What’s the one thing that every single tourist from all around the world touches when they come to the United States?” asked Wastweet. “It’s our coins. If we have mediocre artwork on our coins, that leaves an impression on those visitors of a mediocre country, because art is the ultimate sign of a civilization. When a civilization is advanced enough to support its arts, it’s at its height.”

The Citizen Coinage Advisory Committee was founded in 2003, when Congress decided that a committee with a penchant for coins should discuss the quality of America’s change. Since then, the advisory committee has reviewed the Lewis and Clark nickels, the America the Beautiful quarters, and the Sacagawea dollars.

Wastweet thinks that the U.S. is behind the times — behind Canada, the European Union and Britain — when it comes to our coins. We’re stuck in a rut of antiquated classical designs, says Wastweet, and there’s been little coinage innovation because America doesn’t view its currency as a work of art.

“In France, the sculptors at the mint are treated like rock stars,” she said. “They’re celebrities. But here they’re treated like little worker bees down in the basement.”

The U.S. Mint has 15 coin artists in its Artistic Infusion Program, a citizen-based stable of artists, and seven in-house sculptors. They are taking assignments to design about 50 new coins this year, said Wastweet.

Erik Jansen, a 55-year-old commercial real-estate manager from Mercer Island, remembers the heyday of iconic coins during the early and mid 20th century — even if he didn’t live during that time himself. Jansen is a casual coin collector and the general-public member of the Citizens Advisory Coinage Committee.

“Let’s be frank, we’re just recycling coin designs,” Jansen said. The U.S. Mint has been reusing classic designs like the Walking Liberty silver half-dollar, which were minted from 1916 to 1947. It’s time to step it up, he said.

He and Wastweet are trying to remake our coin culture and elevate the craft of currency to a high art form. Last December, Wastweet gave a presentation to the chairman of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee after conducting an investigation of the U.S. Mint. Her recommendation: “The U.S. Mint needs an art director.”

When the Mint was created, a director and a chief engraver were tasked with cultivating the art found on America’s coins, but that practice fell to the wayside as the Mint expanded. Following her recommendation, the U.S. Mint has created a new position of “Chief Engraver” and is reviewing applications.

Wastweet says that there’s no magical formula for what makes a quality coin; she just knows it when she sees it.

“It’s a combination of the texture, the subject matter and the quality and clarity of the design,” she said. “There’s a quality about it that says that it’s a coin, too. Some of the coins that are coming out now don’t look like coins — they look like tokens or medals.”

And Jansen says some newer coins also don’t tell a story. As Jansen was roaming the streets of France in the pre-Euro days, he ambled into an old coin pawnshop. He noticed what others may have overlooked — that the year-to-year progression of coins told a remarkable story about the nation’s political history.

“The designs on their money changed radically as a result of the political environment changing, as a result of the French Revolution,” said Jansen. “I’d always thought that … coinage represents a society’s best representation of its values, its history and its vision.”

Wastweet’s vision is for America to create coins suitable for the current time, while still reflecting our historic past. But is the time for coins gone, as more and more people switch to credit cards and debit cards in a digitized world?

Not anytime soon, says Wastweet.

“There will always be a place for cash as long as there are illegal drug deals, garage sales and people on Craigslist buying things on a one-to-one basis,” she said. “We’ll always have coins.”

Amy Harris: 206-464-2212 or aharris@seattletimes.com