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Artist wins national competition to design new National Humanities Medal

The 2013 National Humanities Medalists will, like their predecessors from other years, represent many fields of intellectual and cultural endeavor, but something will be different. The medal itself is new. It had been redesigned, a process that began with the announcement of an open national competition in October 2012.

By March 15, 2013, 131 designs had been submitted online. Three judges helped narrow the field—artist Don Everhart of the U.S. Mint, artist and University of Iowa professor Chunghi Choo, and sculptor George Anthonisen. The winner, selected by NEH Acting Chairman Carole M. Watson, came from Chicago artist Paul Balan, an immigrant from the Philippines, who was working as a mail-room delivery associate and making art in his off hours.

Balan grew up in the town of Paete, which is known internationally for its religious carvings and paintings. He is descended from one of Paete’s renowned sculptors, Pablo Bague, and began drawing and making art at a young age. He studied fine arts at the University of Santo Thomas in Manila, and at seventeen designed the stained-glass windows for St. James Apostle Parish in Paete.

Balan’s emigration to the United States in 2001 came through his wife’s uncle, a Philippine native who served in the U.S. Navy and moved to Chicago—service that allowed him to bring his family members to the country. Since moving here, Balan has continued painting and working with stained glass, and has added sculpture to his repertoire. His work has been featured in several prominent Illinois exhibitions, including juried shows and others marking important Philippine events. As a result of the NEH contest and continued exposure, Balan has recently been able to pursue his art full time. He is an associate designer with the U.S. Mint Artistic Infusion Program, which commissions work from a pool of diverse professional artists across the country.

Balan’s design for the National Humanities Medal, minted in brass and finished in polished gold plate, depicts a seated Lady Liberty, amidst detailed folds of cloth and reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite style. She is surrounded by icons of a great civilization—a lamp for wisdom, a dove for peace, a sheaf of wheat for prosperity, and as the artist described his vision, “the quill that she holds in her right hand symbolizes knowledge which is chronicled in the open journal displayed on her lap.” One of the judges called it “an absolutely beautiful design that is well thought out, composed and stylish.” A wonderful new medal made for NEH’s distinguished and deserving recipients.