The jewellery artist Lin Cheung has been chosen to design the prestigious Paralympic medals for this summer's Olympic Games.
Designer reveals inspiration behind Paralympic medals
"Gold is very yielding in your hands," says jewellery designer Lin Cheung. "Its purity is constant and even when different carats have been mixed together, gold always feels the same, which makes it so pleasurable to work with."
As the designer of the prestigious Paralympic medals for this summer's Olympic Games in Britain, 40-year-old Cheung's precious metal of choice has been liberally applied to the top accolade.
"The gold medal has a heavy layer of gold on it - about six grams of gold plating," she says. "The silver medal is sterling silver and the bronze one is a mixture of copper and other white metals, which achieve the bronze colour."
Weighing up to 400 grams, 7 millimetres thick and measuring 85mm in diameter, around 2,100 Paralympic medals have been created to the same specifications as the new Olympic ones. The UK-based designer and senior lecturer at Central Saint Martins College in London saw off stiff competition from creative types of all descriptions to design the coveted awards more than 18 months ago.
"About 100 people were invited to tender," she says. "From artists and writers to graphic designers and architects - it was quite wide-reaching. We were then narrowed down to six and asked to submit ideas around a fairly open brief."
Six eventually became two, with the British artist David Watkins appointed to design the Olympic medals and Cheung commissioned to create the Paralympic trio, dubbed Spirit in Motion.
"From the front to the back of the medal, although they are never seen at the same time, there needed to be a narrative - that part of the brief really stayed with me," says Cheung. "And as I thought about the Olympics and the iconography of it - including the use of the Victory Goddess in all its forms - I knew instinctively what I wanted to do."
The image of the winged Greek goddess has been depicted on Olympic medals since 2004 and her forward flight and determination were seen by Cheung as a natural metaphor for the founding principles of the Paralympic Games. On the obverse side of the medal is an imagined close-up section of the goddess's outstretched wings, which she says would have "carried her into the stadium to greet Olympic winners". For the reverse side, Cheung drew inspiration from a marble replica of the Nike of Paeonius sculpture made by the Greek artist Paeonius in the late fifth century BC and is currently housed in the Museum of Olympics in Iliia, Greece. She reproduced a section of Nike's billowing gown from around her heart, to symbolise the integrity and fervour of those competing in the ultimate test of physical capability and endurance.
"The British Museum has a plaster cast copy of the statue and a wonderful store in their archives. So it was very exciting to work together with them in trying to find a way I could take an impression from her tunic - to have an authenticity of the texture of the actual sculpture overlaid on to the medal," she says.
Throughout the process, Cheung submitted computer-generated 2D images and 3D rendered drawings to the Royal Mint's headquarters in Llantrisant, South Wales, where prototypes of the medals were made for final approval.
"I was asked to come along and oversee the process with the craftsmen to make sure everything was exactly how I wanted it to be," says Cheung. "It was lovely to see it being realised and, as we all had similar backgrounds in silversmithing and metalwork, we spoke the same language."
"There were certain limitations as the medals were struck, pressed and almost stamped - which is different to a cast medal where the mould is basically broken open," she adds. "It was fascinating for me because in the casting process almost anything is possible, but as this went through a mechanised process - how coins are made - to make the medals textural and sculptural was a challenge."
The precious ore for the medals, which will be presented in 502 victory ceremonies in more than 19 venues, was supplied by London 2012 sponsor Rio Tinto's operations in the United States and Mongolia. From mine to mint, the process was a smooth one. However, debate did arise over the final finish of the medals, admits Cheung, with some treatments producing too dazzling a surface while others resulted in modestly matte pieces not befitting of the occasion.
"Sometimes what is textural and very nice in the hand might appear dull and not look good on," says Cheung. "I paid a lot of attention to how it looked and felt and I don't know if classic is the right word, but I wanted to create something the athletes would treasure - something that had innovation and wasn't just about design."
Ever modest, the respected jewellery artist breaks into peals of laughter when asked whether she found a way to weave her Braille signature or initials into the medal designs.
"Oh, no, no - in that way it's like any other commission," she says. "You hand it over and it doesn't belong to you anymore. I simply gave the committee a design and I was fully aware from the beginning that's what it would be. They didn't suggest it and I never thought about it to be honest!"
Bearing the year and location of the games like Cheung's three medals, complementary purple ribbons created in a latticed weave representative of the intertwining River Thames will support the Paralympic medals as they hang from the necks of this year's champions. In all, 4,200 athletes will compete in a total of 20 sports featured in the Paralympic programme. The games will be opened by Queen Elizabeth on August 29 and they will run until September 9.
One of a forecast four billion viewers to tune in worldwide, Cheung will watch Paralympic hopefuls vie for first place in archery, powerlifting, judo, shooting and the like, all from the comfort of her home in Devon, England.
"It was a genuinely fair process and I couldn't get tickets, so I'll watch it on television," she says, laughing. "I don't know how I will feel when I see the medals being awarded; I'm at the point now where I can't imagine it. Although, having met some of the athletes and knowing how excited they are, I feel incredibly proud, so it's a nice anticipation."
The Olympic Games will run from July 27 to August 12. The Paralympic Games will take place from August 29 to September 9. For more information, go to www.london2012.com. The Olympic and Paralympic medals will be displayed at the British Museum until early September as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. For details about Lin Cheung, visit www.lincheung.co.uk.
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