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Indiana coin artist treasures her historic home

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Posted at 3:10 PM, Nov 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-26 15:10:00-05

VEVAY, Ind. -- The odds are good that you have a piece of Donna Weaver’s artwork in your purse, pocket or coin jar.

Weaver, a Northern Kentucky native, Art Academy of Cincinnati graduate and Vevay, Indiana, resident, is the wax-miniature artist whose designs and modeling are on the reverse side of 12 of 50 state quarters issued by the U.S. Mint from 1999 to 2009: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Mississippi, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.

The avid art collector and historical preservationist also stamped her talent on three coins in the America the Beautiful Quarters series as well as more than 20 commemorative and bullion coins since joining the mint’s Artistic Infusion Program in 2000. That 2006 nickel you have on which an 1800 bust of Thomas Jefferson is facing forward instead of profiled was engraved by Weaver, too.

Working from a studio and library heated by a wood-burning fire in the rear of her historic Ohio River home, Weaver also creates miniature portraits of iconic Americans such as Daniel Boone that she sells for under $200. She has revived an art form – wax miniature portraiture – that was popular from 1750 to 1840, creating portraits the mint describes as “museum quality.”

Among the medals she’s done for the mint are seven coins from the Code Talkers Recognition Medals series. Hers represent the Cherokee and Oneida nations, and the Cheyenne River Sioux, Tonto Apache and Pueblo of Acoma tribes.

She is retired from the mint but recently completed a commission for a die-stamped medal commemorating Indiana’s bicentennial. Three versions of the medal, including ones in brass and silver, will be sold during Indiana’s yearlong 200th celebration of its statehood in 2016. Weaver’s bicentennial design won a competition among 50 artists, said Indiana Bicentennial Commission Executive Director Perry Hammock, who described her as a “singular talent.”

“The quality of her work and the level of detail, her professionalism, her passion really came through in her design,” Hammock said. “She is quiet about her talents, but her talents speak very loudly for themselves.”

Among Weaver’s favorite designs, she said, is the 2011 September 11 National Medal, which marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two million one-ounce silver coins, which depict a robed woman holding up an eternal flame, two pillars symbolizing the World Trade Center and the words “always remember” on the obverse and an eagle landing on the words “honor hope” on the reverse, were struck by the mint and put on sale for $10.

Donna Weaver's design for the September 11 National Medal, a memorial medal issued on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Provided)

Projects such as the Indiana bicentennial medal have been rewarding for Weaver, but it has been those that she completed while with the U.S. Mint (2000-2006) that spotlight the former Kenner toys artist’s sculpting and engraving career.

Weaver said she came upon the mint’s infusion program in a moment of serendipity while searching the Internet for work. The application window was a short two weeks. She applied quickly and became one of 19 artists selected.

She’s had to be on her artistic toes ever since.

“When you work for the mint, you never know what’s going to come down,” said Weaver, who along with her late husband, Tom, reared two children in Walnut Hills and Mount Adams in the 1960s and 1970s. “There’s no sitting around and waiting for that muse on your shoulder to inspire you.”

History is Her Avocation

Another subject that inspires Weaver is history. She served as president of the Switzerland County Historical Society, participates in historical re-enactments as far away as Virginia and is one of the founders of her second great passion, the Musee de Venoge, an 1814, nonprofit living history museum on the outskirts of Vevay.

Weaver said she doesn’t know why history is so important to her, but it’s a perfect match for the artwork she makes in her home studio and her involvement at Venoge.

“I appreciate history. I always have,” she said. “I like the way things were done in the past.”

She grew up in the 1940s and 1950s near Fort Mitchell in Kenton County. She attended Beechwood School from kindergarten through 12th grade and then studied painting, print-making and sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for five years, receiving a master’s degree in 1966. It was during her AAC days that she met her future husband, Tom Weaver, who went on to be a geologist.

The couple fell in with a group of young, artistic people that met for weekly potluck dinners in Over-the-Rhine. Their connection to it, Weaver said, started with future restaurateur and city council member Jim Tarbell.

Tom Weaver worked at Good Samaritan Hospital when its old chapel was being dismantled. Included in the demolition were decorative pieces of Carrara marble Tom wanted to rescue. Tarbell happened to show up one day and offered to help him salvage the marble, and he invited them to join his band of urban revivalists, Weaver said.

Weaver was a freelance artist and mother during those early years, but she ended up taking a job as a doll designer at Kenner that lasted for 14 years. Her specialty was designing heads for dolls, both male and female, and her projects included Kenner’s Swamp Thing and Beetlejuice. Her favorites were the boy dolls, “not the cutesy stuff that didn’t appeal to me.”

She lost her job when Hasbro bought out Kenner and eliminated the dolls division. The Weavers moved to a historic home in Vevay around 1990.

She went back to freelancing and continued to apply her interest in history as part of a group of Vevay residents who rescued Venoge from destruction, got it on the National Register of Historical Places in 1997, restored it over a 14-year period and opened it to the public in 2011.

Weaver’s efforts to save Venoge, however, didn’t come with a paycheck. The mint job she snagged in 2000 did.

Paperwork and Collecting

Her work today is much more than creating art. She has learned to write grant proposals and deal with all the licensing and copyright paperwork the mint requires. In the spirit of the 1960s, her art collection has grown in part by trading her work for others’ art.

“I trade my waxes for just about anything,” Weaver said.

Her collection includes dozens of framed miniatures as well as pottery and Indian artifacts found on her 100-acre homestead. Most of her period items, which include furniture, come from the Early Republic era, roughly 1780-1830. And they fit well in her 1836 home.

“Each one has something to tell,” she said of her art and artifacts. “I’m just fascinated with stuff, and I like to look at it.”

Her living history experiences at Venoge have taught her a lot about primitive American life. Among other things, she has learned how to save what others would cast away. And she can cook period dishes on an open fire.

As with the history depicted on the coins she designs and carves for the mint, Weaver’s life is dedicated to preserving the past by nurturing it into the future.

Musee de Venoge

The first settlers of Switzerland County, which is Indiana’s second smallest, came from Switzerland and France to make money – and wine. They established the country’s first commercially successful winery on the high bank of the Ohio and were shipping barrels to the East Coast and New Orleans by 1810.

Venoge, named after a nearby creek that is now called Indian Creek, is the oldest example of Swiss-French architecture remaining in Vevay (pronounced VEE-vee).

The story of its rescue, restoration and current use as a living history museum can be read in detail at the museum’s website, www.venoge.org.

To Order a Bicentennial Medal

The medal Donna Weaver designed and sculpted for Indiana’s 200th birthday is available in two sizes in brass at www.indiana2016.org/medal/htm or by calling 888-263-4702. The 1¾-inch medal costs $19.95. A 3-inch version is $39.95, and a set is $49.95. The price includes shipping and handling. Expect delivery just before Christmas.

A sterling silver medal will be available for pre-mint ordering in the spring. A price will be set at that time, said Perry Hammock, director of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.