As Women's History Month dawns, I can't leave the subject of the Winter Olympics without celebrating the medals themselves, and the woman artist who created them. Along with the rest of the Outsports.com Vancouver-coverage team, I spent two weeks watching the Vancouver Games. It's a personal tradition of mine -- I've been watching the Olympics on TV since the 1960s, and wouldn't miss them for anything. Shortly I realized that no other Games I could remember had awarded medals that stood out so sharply for their beauty and their powerful presence.
The Vancouver medals are the creation of First Nation artist Corinne Hunt, also an out lesbian. Her imagination and love of metals had a huge artistic impact on the Games.
Hunt was born and raised in a native community at Alert Bay on the north end of Vancouver Island. "I'm Komoyue tribe," she says -- she belongs to the Raven Clan of the Komoyue. But she also has some Tlingit ancestry -- her paternal grandmother was a Tlingit noblewoman from Alaska.
In a recent interview with film producer Morris Chapdelaine on BigGayMovie.com, Hunt was a picture of traditional/contemporary -- she had a spikey boyish 'do and a black-and-white native weaving wrapped around her neck. She shared that she came out when she was 16 years old. "That was in 1976. Yeah!"
Hunt smiled broadly as she added, "As long as you're very comfortable with who you are, it can be a very positive influence."
Wowing the Jury
The medals were the result of two years of intensive collaborations. In 2008, when the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) announced a competition for a medal design for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, 48 artists from all over the world -- including Hunt -- jumped at the chance.
Hunt worked her way through several stages of the selection process, starting with an eye-catching concept using images of an orca and a raven. These were based on the powerful sweeping stylized animals in the art style of her tribal heritage. While the orca embodies the power, speed and strength of Olympic athletes, the raven expresses the magic of transformation so precious to Paralympic competitors.
At each stage, Hunt made the cut into a smaller group, as she got the jury's attention with her evolving idea that each medal could be unique, reflecting the unique personality and talents of the person who won it. Yet the orca and raven symbols celebrate the idea of clan, expressing the way in which Olympian athletes unite the whole human family during their time together at the Games.
Hunt did this by creating a panel that was richly engraved with swirling whales and ravens. The round of each Olympic medal would be lifted, cookie-cutter fashion, from a slightly different spot on the panel. In short, no medal would be like any other. Each would be an individual work of art. But, like a piece of a puzzle, each medal would still remain a dynamic part of the whole design. The Paralympic medals were more squarish, but non-repeats in the same way.
In the closing phase of the competition, Hunt was asked to collaborate with another competitor, industrial designer Omer Arbel. The two came up with a final twist. Unlike most Olympic medals, which are flat like conventional coins, Vancouver's medals would be three-dimensional and wavy, expressing the waters and mountains of Vancouver's homeland. The jury was evidently bowled over by the originality of this idea.
The medals were also to be among the biggest and heaviest Olympic awards ever made. As usual, the "gold" medal would be silver plated with gold. At today's prices, with gold selling at more than $1000 a troy ounce, a solid gold medal weighing almost a pound would not be affordable by the Olympics. (As it was, the medals' manufacture cost was over $500 each.) The "bronze" series would actually be copper, a metal long cherished by Pacific Northwest peoples.
For Hunt's design to be translated into 1014 actual medals, Hunt and Omer Arbel collaborated with the Royal Canadian Mint. Gold, silver and copper were supplied by the giant Vancouver firm Teck Resources Limited -- they were recycled from electronic waste (circuitboards, TVs, etc.) that would otherwise have gone into landfills. Each medal was struck 6 times to get the wave into it, and engraved by a laser process with its chosen whale or raven design.
VANOC's own design team superintended the whole process.
Pros and Cons
Admittedly, when the Vancouver medals were unveiled, they weren't popular with everybody. There's no pleasing everybody about everything, especially where art is concerned -- and tastes always divide sharply on Olympic medals. Over the modern Olympics' 114 years of history, medal styles have run the gamut from modernist to Victorian retro.
So the online comments ranged from "nice," "stunning" and "beautiful," to "ugly" and "they look like microwaved frisbees." Some fans were offended that the medals bore a native symbol instead of the Canadian maple leaf.
A wider sweep of mumbling about medal art wasn't lacking either. The Beijing 2008 medals were villified as looking like hockey pucks. The ones given out at Turin 2006 were compared to CDs.
One website did a poll on the "nicest" medals. Nagano came in 1st with 41% of the vote, and Vancouver 2nd with 25% of the vote. One commenter had eyeballed the entire history of Olympic medals and said, "Honestly the winter medals have been better than the summer medals since 1992 with Albertville's. The summer medals are too busy and the front is ugly. Barcelona's, Atlanta's and Athens medals were bland, uninspired and plain. I like Sydney's because of the finish. Beijing's use of jade and that very beautiful back was wonderful."
But Hunt's designs have their devoted fans as well.
Ancient Love of Metals
Before her involvement with the Olympics, Corrine Hunt had actually got her start as a jeweler in 1985. She had just finished college with a major in anthropology.
About that time, she got inspired by Norman Brotchie, one of her tribal uncles. He was a celebrated jeweler himself, known for his way of translating the ancient Kwakwaka'wakw art of engraving onto his works. From ancient times, some tribes of the Pacific Coast were skilled metalworkers, creating exquisite shields and other pieces hammered from the native copper ore. Later on, they learned from Europeans how to work with silver and gold.
Corrine fell in love with this engraving approach and built her own jewelry style around it. Her work began to be exhibited in galleries throughout Canada and Europe.
Later the artist moved on to sculpture, even custom furniture, in which she melded traditional native concepts with space-age metals like stainless steel and aluminum.
Hunt loves the warm gleaming surfaces of polished metal, and the friendly way in which metal yields to engraving. She says of this combination, "I want to show how both the First Nations people and the art have evolved."
Today Corrine's work is collected around the world. Before taking on the Olympic medals, she designed the logo for the 2006 World Peace Forum, which was held in Vancouver. In the Chapdelaine interview, Hunt confessed, "I'd like to design some skateboards and snowboards, or do some street art. Everything! Yeah!"
Whatever else she does, Hunt will go down in history as the creator of those 2010 Olympic medals. During the two weeks of the Games, her creations were on camera for literally thousands of times -- incredible exposure for an artist, that no amount of money could buy in advertising. As the days passed, their unique look -- the way their wavy surfaces caught the light like living ocean water -- left an indelible impression on many viewers.
In short -- the Vancouver medals will probably be hailed as the most unique -- or at least the most attention-getting -- in the history of the modern Olympics. With their fusion of ancient and modern, they express the multi-millennial history of the Games, and the old/new spirit of this out artist herself.