1. St. Petersburg

The U.S. Mint wants to spice up its coins. Can a St. Petersburg surrealist help?

St. Petersburg artist Steven Kenny, pictured working in the art studio above his garage, is a surrealist painter who recently submitted some surrealist-inspired designs to the U.S. Mint for new coins and medallions. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jul. 12

ST. PETERSBURG — Across the world, nations stamp coins in bright colors and shapes. Now the U.S. Mint is searching for avant-garde artists to bring that kind of panache to American own coins and medals.

It found one of those artists in Steven Kenny, a St. Petersburg illustrator-turned-painter who was inspired by Salvador Dalí. He's gone from designing an album cover for the band Journey to the kind of surrealist whose paintings hang in galleries all over the world.

Commercial art just wasn't fulfilling, he said. So he turned to the avant-garde.

"I consider my regular work to be so personal," Kenny said. "You can't get as personal with commercial work."

Now Kenny, 56, has the chance to turn his art into history. He was recently named one of the 27 artists taking part in the U.S. Mint's Artistic Infusion Program. He submitted his first design in March, his second on July 7 and expects to submit his last this coming week.

The U.S. Mint is looking for artists to design a new Congressional medal, a dollar coin and maybe even a commemorative coin, said agency spokesman Michael White.

Kenny can't say much about his actual designs because they'll stay under wraps until the Mint selects the winners. His goal was to incorporate his surrealist style without "getting too crazy."

For inspiration, he said the U.S. Mint showed him some of the innovative new currencies being designed and minted elsewhere. U.S. officials showed him an example: a French silver coin featuring a prominent blue hand, which was named the 2014 "Coin of the Year" by World Coin News.

The mint also showed him a new shape that has piqued his interest: A dome-shaped coin, which means one side is slightly raised, so it looks like a slight dome.

Australia debuted a domed coin in 2012 with a blue and purple night sky on one side. In June, that nation rolled out a new dome-shaped coin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on July 20.

The U.S. rolled out a dome-shaped silver dollar coin in 2014 to commemorate the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and recently did so to honor this month's 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

"There is a lot of stuff happening in other countries around the world where they're getting pretty adventurous with their coins," Kenny said. "Everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing and trying not to get left behind."

The mint said it believes the designs are more than just "simple illustrations on small metal discs." They also express America's values and heritage and help tell the nation's story. The Artistic Infusion Program was established in 2003 to "enrich and invigorate the nation's coin and medal designs," White wrote in a statement.

A trained illustrator, Kenny's work has appeared in Time Magazine, on Celestial Seasoning tea boxes and he even created the cover of the 1996 Journey album "The Journey Continues." But to him, illustration was never as fulfilling as fine art.

He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984, where he studied illustration. There, he discovered surrealism and that there were far more types of art than he had realized.

"It totally blew my mind," Kenny said. "I was completely unaware of how broad all of art history is."

That style of art spoke to his childhood, when he never felt comfortable painting things "in a straightforward kind of way." So the surrealist movement "just made sense" to him. He tried to transfer to the painting department in his junior year, but it was too late to switch.

Unable to find any New York City galleries to represent him after graduation, he fell back on his training as an illustrator. He spent 13 years doing commercial illustration, producing works such as an illustration of Joe Camel in a hospital bed for Time.

In 1997, the trained illustrator turned his attention to fine art full-time. He moved to Virginia and connected with a Washington D.C. gallery that kick-started his painting career (check out his work at

Kenny works in a second-floor studio behind the home he shares with his former high school sweetheart and wife of 10 years, Diohn Brancaleoni. His art, which has been featured in galleries in the U.S. and across the Atlantic, depicts nature intertwined with humans. His 2011 oil on canvas painting "Beekeeper's Wife," features a snail-woman-beehive hybrid. Kenny believes humans are part of nature, despite sometimes thinking they are separate from it. But there's another reason he features nature prominently.

"We are much more animalistic than we think we are too, in terms of the way we're affected by our instincts," he said. "That has a much bigger impact on the decisions and choices we make than we're aware of."

Kenny's paintings are designed to look normal at first glance. But then he hopes to draw viewers in with something unusual. It's a style he brought to his coin designs.

He says it's important to emphasize empty or "negative" space around the subject. He doesn't want to let too many details blend together. Most crucial of all, Kenny thinks coin designers should do more than use the main element as the focal point of the coin — that element should instead be drawing people to the coin itself.

"At first glance you're not going to know what it is unless it's a profile of a head or something," Kenny said. "The idea is to make a design that makes you wonder what it is and then spend the time looking at it more closely and figure out what's going on."

Kenny sent in a hand-drawn coin and medallion designs about 8 inches in diameter along with a shrunken-down, actual-size version. If his designs are selected, he'll receive $5,000 in addition to $2,000 he's already been paid for taking part.

He'll also become a part of the coin itself. His initials will be added to it.

Contact Ben Leonard at or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.


  1. Candice Anderson, left, and Alsace Walentine, co-owners of Tombolo Books, rearrange books as attendees of the Times Festival of Reading leave the University Student Center behind them. [Jack Evans | Times]
    The shop plans to open next to Black Crow on First Ave. S before the new year.
  2. Damian J. Fernandez, center, is introduced Monday as the new president of Eckerd College. He will succeed longtime president Donald R. Eastman III on July 1. SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Damian Fernandez, 62, will succeed president Donald R. Eastman III, who steps down June 30 after leading the school for 19 years.
  3. Bicyclist Steven Weldon was struck by a white sedan while pedaling along the Pinellas Trail earlier this month. St. Petersburg Police Department
    Steven Weldon could have exercised more caution, according to St. Petersburg Police, but won’t face any charges.
  4. Much work has been completed on the Selmon Extension project, but we still have a way to go before the construction and ongoing detours on Gandy Boulevard end by the projected fall 2020 completion date. MONIQUE WELCH  |  Monique Welch | Times
    The ongoing project along Gandy Boulevard began in February but still has a lot of work left before its projected fall 2020 completion date.
  5. Frank Peterman Jr. (left) and Rene Flowers (right) are vying for the Pinellas County Commission District 7 seat. Peterman is a Baptist preacher and former St. Petersburg City Council member, state representative and Department of Juvenile Justice secretary. Flowers is a Pinellas County School Board member who also spent two terms on the City Council. [Photos courtesy Frank Peterman and Rene Flowers]
    School Board member Rene Flowers and former lawmaker Frank Peterman Jr. have filed to run. Both also spent time on the St. Petersburg City Council.
  6. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The driver faces charges of driving under the influence and refusal to submit to testing.
  7. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    The fire destroyed one business and damaged others inside a strip mall at the corner of 49th Street South and 1st Avenue South
  8. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Son and father both had weapons during an early-morning argument.
  9. St. Petersburg police are looking for the driver of a white sedan who struck a bicyclist as he was crossing the Pinellas Trail at 49th Street S on Nov. 1. The bicyclist survived. St. Petersburg Police Department
    Then the driver pulled an injured Steven Weldon out of the road, got back into his car and drove off, according to police.
  10. A total of 131 employees are scheduled to be laid off in January as Locale Market and Farm Table Cucina close at the Sundial to make way for a new food hall created by the developers of the Heights Public Market at the Armature Works in Tampa. CHRIS URSO   |   TIMES
    In a notice to the state of Florida, Sundial owner Bill Edwards said the layoffs are expected to take place the first week of January.