2-Bit Poll to Narrow Design of New Coin

Special to The Times

If they would just flip a coin.

Then picking the top five designs for the California quarter would be painless, a matter of fate and physics. The question of grizzlies versus the Gold Rush, Queen Califia or a cornucopia would be over in an instant.

Instead, a poll on the state's Web site at www.caquarter.ca. gov offers a dizzying array of icons among the 20 finalists.

The Golden Gate Bridge, a giant sequoia, prospectors, palm trees, naturalist John Muir, redwoods, quail and, of course, the Hollywood sign, all stake a claim to the 1-inch round of reverse real estate that will hit the nation's pockets in 2005.

The California Quarter Project, part of the U.S. Mint's Fifty State Commemorative Coin Program launched in 1999, is run by the California State Library in conjunction with the California Arts Council. Five times a year, the mint releases coins in the order in which states ratified the Constitution and joined the union. California, admitted to the union on Sept. 9, 1850, will be the 31st state to release its commemorative quarter. The obverse -- the "heads" side -- of all quarters continues to bear the image of George Washington.

Weighing in on the California design appears to be a popular pastime. Almost 2 million votes have been tallied since the Internet poll made its debut at the end of last month.

Although poll results are not binding, the public's preferences will be taken into account when Gov. Gray Davis selects the five designs that California will submit to the U.S. Mint in March.

An early front-runner depicts a grizzly bear in front of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, a sight not seen in California since at least August 1922 when the last grizzly bear was killed in Tulare County.

Also winning hearts is a pastiche of a prospector flanked by a grizzly, poppies and an eagle; a rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge with the Hollywood sign in the background; and a stunningly simple design of a stylized sun fronted by curling waves.

"The quarter is the workhorse coin of American currency," said Kevin Starr, California's state librarian and chairman of the California Quarter Project. "In the '20s, it was the nickel, during World War II it was the dime and now it's the quarter."

Starr, who cites the Queen Califia and John Muir coins as among his favorites, will help Davis pick the final five. Those designs will go to the U.S. Mint, where designers will make their own adjustments to the coins. Then, after review by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the secretary of the treasury, the coin designs will go back to Davis for final selection.

"We're thrilled by the level of interest this coin has generated," Starr said. "I think it's one of the ways we signal to each other that we have a common culture."

The quarter project, with a total budget of $100,000 -- "We did it on a shoestring," Starr said -- began last year with a call for submissions to the state's schools and libraries.

More than 8,000 entries were narrowed down to 63 by the staffs of the state library and of California First Lady Sharon Davis. A governor-appointed selection committee, whose 20 members included coin collectors such as Hollywood director Penny Marshall and Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, further narrowed the field to the final 20.

Reactions to the designs are mixed. Some, like the Sierra Club and various John Muir enthusiasts who maintain Web sites in honor of the beloved naturalist, have linked to the Web site and urged their members to vote for the Muir coin. Others take a slightly darker view of the enterprise.

"I'd have to characterize the designs as spanning everything and offending very few," said California artist Sandow Birk, whose paintings explore and tweak social and political issues relating to the state. Birk likes a coin that depicts an array of the state's trees, and which is alone among the coins to reference the eastern edge of the state with an image of a Joshua tree.

Naysayers include a Reseda man who suggests a bifurcated coin to represent California's estimated 500,000 annual earthquakes. Students in a "Literature of California" class at UC Davis thought a coin with scenes of American Indians imprisoned in the California missions and Japanese Americans being led to Manzanar would tell a bold truth about the state.

"There's a darker side of California history that, with college students, you definitely talk about," said Jack Hicks, director of the Pacific Regional Humanities Center at UC Davis. "That's the difficulty of designing these things -- people don't think of themselves as from just one part of the state, so someone from Southern California isn't going to like a Golden Gate Bridge coin, while Hollywood isn't going to do it for someone in the logging end of the state."

Which is what led Jim Cody of Weed, Calif., to his coin design -- a line drawing of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.

"My goal was to create something beautiful," said Cody, a graphic artist who designed the coin for a class assignment. "I wanted to show what the state feels like, what the essence is."

Like some other people with change in their pockets, he finds the state quarters series -- www. usmint.gov/mint_programs -- to be cluttered and ugly.

"California is different from the rest of the states, and I think the coin should show that," Cody said. "I think our state coin should blow the others right out of the water."

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