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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 www.stevenkenny.com).

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 bleonard@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8421. Follow @Ben___Leonard.

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