When Ridgway’s Lisa Issenberg first got into metal work, it was mostly jewelry and small sculptures. Then she was asked to make awards for Telluride’s Mountainfilm, and she’s been hooked ever since.
“It’s the most rewarding. There is something about being a part of recognitions,” Issenberg said. “Awards are like gifts with great honor, and you are part of that gratitude. Even if you are the unknown person behind the gift, it still feels good.”
Issenberg, who operates through her company, Kiitella — Finnish for “to thank, applaud, praise” — has had plenty of clients over the years, hand-making awards for The North Face, American Alpine Club, the Birds of Prey World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek and even Aspen Skiing Co. Since 2013, she’s designed the Aspen Power of Four medals and will make her biggest medal contribution to Aspen athletics this week with X Games.
“It’s a big one. I was pretty excited to get the call,” Issenberg said.
Working with ESPN’s Brian Kerr, the associate director of competition for X Games, Issenberg was commissioned to make this year’s medals for X Games Aspen. The first-, second- and third-place finishers in each of the contests will receive one of the roughly 90 medals Issenberg handcrafted out of her Ridgway studio.
This is the second year in a row ESPN has sought out an external artist to make its medals, with Portland-based artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham having had the honors in 2019.
“Lisa and I talked through a couple of different concepts of what we wanted to see and she came up with a spectacular piece for us,” Kerr said. “As we thought through it, it’s not just another award for these action sports phenoms — our podium athletes are actually getting a piece of X Games artwork around their necks. And that’s really cool.”
Ski racing stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety have all taken home awards made by Issenberg, and beginning Thursday she’ll be able to add some of the world’s best snowboarders and freeskiers to the list, not to mention the motorsport athletes.
Issenberg’s X Games medals are relatively simple. Round like a coin and meant to be worn around the neck, they feature a large X Games logo with a space at the top cut out in the shape of a mountain range. Issenberg said the mountain design is meant to represent the Maroon Bells, using her own artistic license.
The simplicity, typography and angles all draw inspiration from Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus design. Bayer lived in Aspen from 1946 until 1975 and his influence can still be found around the city.
The metal comes from at least 90% to sometimes 100% recycled content, and all waste is recycled as well.
“He wanted these to feel like they were made by a human, and that’s wonderful,” Issenberg said of Kerr. “These top athletes, the top athletes in the world, they’ve worked really hard to get on the podium and they deserve a medal that has heft and depth and heart. And I like to say a little blood, sweat and tears, too.”
Issenberg, who came from the East Coast before moving to Telluride after college, shares the building her Ridgway studio is located in with friend John Billings, who has handcrafted the Grammy awards for the past four decades. When ESPN was looking for a Colorado artist to make its X Games medals, it first talked to Billings, who recommended Issenberg for the job.
“His workshop is in the basement. I can hear the polisher going. It buzzes at my feet all day,” Issenberg said. “Someone reached out to him — they were looking for someone more local, an artist to do the X Games awards, and he said, ‘You have to call Lisa.’”
Issenberg said the whole process from design to finished award took a few months. She made the medals at the same time, cutting them out at once, polishing them at once, and so on. Every aspect of the medals’ creation was done by her there in Ridgway.
And, in a move that is rare for Issenberg, she’ll be on hand this weekend to see some of her work meet its new owner for the first time. She’s never been to X Games before.
“That’s pretty cool to a normal human that is pursuing her passion,” Issenberg said of seeing her medals go home with superstar athletes. “Each one is different. You won’t find two that are the same.”