Pentagram Austin has redesigned the Texas Medal of Arts Award (TMAA), a biennial recognition sponsored by the Texas Cultural Trust (TCT) that honors Texas artists, musicians, performers, leaders and other luminaries who have achieved excellence through their creative talents. The reimagined medal was awarded to eleven recipients at a star-studded gala in Austin on February 22, 2023. The honorees that evening included actor Luke Wilson, artist Deborah Roberts, musician Christopher Cross, singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert, fashion designer Lela Rose, architects Juan Miro and Miguel Rivera, film producer Taylor Sheridan and ballet dancer Septime Webre.
Since its founding in 2001, the Texas Medal of Arts Awards has celebrated 118 honorees including Jamie Foxx, Matthew McConaughey, Eva Longoria, ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs, Dan Rather, Neiman Marcus, H-E-B, Anheuser-Busch, Margaret McDermott, Tommy Lee Jones, Bob Schieffer, Debbie Allen, Robert Rodriguez, Walter Cronkite, Lawrence Wright, Sandra Cisneros, Lyle Lovett, Texas Monthly, Ray Benson, Bill Wittliff, Craig Dykers and Brandon Maxwell, among others.
Pentagram Austin developed a new brand identity for the Texas Cultural Trust in 2020, and that same year the Pentagram team was asked to redesign the Texas Medal of Arts Award.
The previous medal was a typical round, bronze medallion featuring a star and a standard red, white and blue ribbon–both symbolic of the Texas Lone Star flag. The design team began with the goal of not only redesigning the look and feel of the TMAA medal, but reimagining the overall ethos behind awards, which are typically worn during an awards gala and then placed in a box as a memento afterwards.
The Pentagram team explored a wide variety of design directions for the medal including star-shaped medallions, abstract “Texas Lone Stars” and even a horseshoe. In addition, the design team began rethinking the function of the standard neck ribbon and explored lanyard concepts featuring silk ropes–like elegant lassos, variations on traditional bolo ties and western styled collars, pearl snaps, embroidery, sashes and even a bandana concept.
One of the concepts that made it to final consideration by TCT and its Advisory Board was a large three-dimensional gold star divided up into a dozen parts. The idea involved a ceremony wherein each honoree would walk up on the stage wearing their designated, abstract chunk of the star around their neck and once they arrived they would detach the fragment from their lanyard and place it with the other parts–like a puzzle–on a ceremonial pylon (reminiscent of the star atop the iconic San Jacinto Monument) until the entire three-dimensional Texas Lone Star is revealed to the audience. The TCT group admired the interactive, “individual parts make the whole” concept but ultimately decided against it because of the complexity and timing issues of the ceremony itself and the production of multiple performances during the hour-long awards show.
In the end, after exploring more than twenty-five design directions over three years, the Pentagram team suggested the idea of collaborating with a prominent Texas artist to create the new TMAA medallion. During that process, the design team recommended reaching out to the internationally celebrated sculptor James Surls. Austin partner DJ Stout had been a longtime admirer of the artist who also happened to be a former recipient of the Texas Medal of Arts Award.
James Surls is one of the most accomplished Texas artists still working today. Surls, born in Terrell, Texas is primarily known for his heroic wood sculptures. From his studio in the woods near the small East Texas town of Splendora, Surls began creating three-dimensional artworks so original and confident, they seemed to have sprung forth from his hands fully formed.
With his thick beard, ponytail, and burly, woodsman frame, the artist eventually became known as the Paul Bunyan of the Piney Woods. His large-scale, abstract sculptures are carved by hand with an ax and held together with welded iron armature. The celebrated artist, who is now in his 80s, is represented in major art museums throughout the world and his work is featured in private art collections all over the country.
For the Pentagram Austin team, the opportunity to work with such a renowned Texas artist was a thrill of a lifetime. The design team began by asking Surls to riff on the idea of an organic interpretation of the iconic Texas Lone Star. One of the artist’s signature sculptural elements is an abstract flower design made up of multiple, hand-carved petals. Surls sent the team a drawing of a five-petal flower in the same configuration as the five-pointed Texas Lone Star (a pentagram), but the individual, hand-carved petals of the flower distinguish it from the hard-edged, geometry–and political symbolism–of the white star emblazoned on the Texas state flag. The addition of an abstract eye carved into each of the five petals symbolizes the “vision” aspect of the Texas Medal of Arts Award.
After a bit of back-and-forth, the Pentagram team, working closely with Surls, evolved the original sketch into a three-dimensional, organic star that appears to be lifting off the textured wood-grain background. The organic “flower-star” is contained in a circle with the words “Texas Medal of Arts” and “Texas Cultural Trust” set all-caps in Cadiz, an elegant sans-serif typeface designed by Luzi Type Foundry, arching around the perimeter of the circle. The name of the honoree, their creative discipline and the date of their recognition is engraved on the back of each award. The final medal design was then bronzed at Pyrology Foundry & Studio in Bastrop, Texas.
Once the medal was completed, the design team turned their attention to the lanyard. The original medal was attached to a standard, red, white and blue ribbon that didn’t adequately represent the rarefied honor bestowed on each recipient. The Pentagram team, working with professional seamstress Bekah Dubose, designed a custom neck ribbon out of luxurious red taffeta silk. The new, wider “scarf-like” lanyard is designed to be clasped from the back so it can be put on and taken off easier by the honorees.
For DJ Stout, partner and principal of Pentagram’s Austin office, the 2023 Texas Medal of Arts Award gala was particularly sweet because one of the recipients of the newly designed medal was Luke Wilson. The famous actor’s father, the late Bob Wilson, gave Stout his first job as a graphic designer in 1981. Stout worked for Bob’s company Robert A. Wilson Associates, a corporate communications firm based in Dallas, for seven years and rose to the position of Senior Art Director. During his stint at the firm, he became life-long friends with Luke and his brothers Owen and Andrew, long before they were actors.