Bringing history to life
A flight lieutenant navigator salutes, a pilot flashes a victory sign and a member of the Women’s Division waves as a Spitfire roars by overhead. These are the faces of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), honoured on a new 14-karat gold coin celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, brought to life by artist Laurie McGaw.
McGaw has designed dozens of historic commemorative coins for the Royal Canadian Mint over the years, marking the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee and Canada’s 150th anniversary. She’s always thrilled to have these opportunities, but being asked to design a coin for V-E Day was especially meaningful for McGaw.
The intense connection many people have to historical subjects—especially those related to military history—made getting the details right extra critical, and McGaw poured over every source she could find to learn as much about the RCAF and its role in the Second World War as she could. Part of that research included visiting archives to examine real-world uniforms.
“Holding those pieces in my hands, I felt a connection to the people who wore them,” she says. “There’s also a real feeling of reverence and respect for what they went through and had to do.”
McGaw’s personal connection to the men and women who served isn’t abstract. During the war, a nurse at the Weston Sanatorium in Toronto treated a young serviceman with pleurisy, and the pair soon became inseparable. On May 16, 1945, just days after the European victory, they got engaged, and that, says McGaw, is the story of how her parents met.
Although neither of her parents were ever posted overseas, their service means a great deal to McGaw. It even played a role in previous work with the Mint, when she was able to use her mother’s nursing uniform in a design for a coin honouring Canada’s first military nurse, Georgina Pope.
EVERY DETAIL COUNTS
As one of three artists invited to submit designs for the RCAF V-E Day coin, McGaw started by putting as many ideas to paper as she could come up with.
“That first stage is sometimes my favourite part,” she says. “You’re reading and looking at everything that might spark an idea, and your mind is going a mile a minute with all the possibilities. It’s really exciting.”
From the initial flurry of sketches, McGaw chose the best ones to submit, offering the coin’s product manager plenty of choices. After one of her designs was chosen to move forward, she spent the next several months refining the art and working with Mint staff and historical vetters to make sure every last detail was authentic and accurate, from the number of buttons on every jacket to the type of cap worn by each figure.
“For this coin, the Mint wanted to carry forward one of the figures from another coin, so my saluting wing commander had to be wearing the same cap as the one on the other coin,” she notes.
McGaw added a pilot and a Women’s Division officer, and presented the trio from slightly below to give them a heroic look. The angle also gives the viewer a good look at a Spitfire aircraft flying by overhead. Behind them all is a bold V for victory, echoed by the jubilance and relief in the faces of the three officers.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
When she’s not designing coins, McGaw is a portrait artist, sculptor and illustrator. She enjoys how coin design presents different challenges from her other art forms, while simultaneously incorporating pieces of all of them: the defined parameters of illustration, the human figures of portraiture, and the three dimensions and texture of sculpture—all in an incredibly small space.
McGaw is already looking forward to meeting those challenges on the next coin design opportunity that comes her way, but notes that the hardest part of every coin design is keeping it to herself until the coin is released: “It’s such an exciting process that I wish I could share with everyone!”