Lisa Issenberg

Lisa Issenberg works in her Ridgway studio. “There’s so much joy around the whole process of creating awards that honor people’s accomplishments,” she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Riley)

This week, a few works of Colorado art are headed to Switzerland, Germany and Norway, among other countries called home by the winners of the Audi Birds of Prey World Cup. Designed and handcrafted in a Ridgway studio, the medals from last weekend’s ski race in Beaver Creek are just the first few by metal artist Lisa Issenberg that will be awarded this winter.

In past years, top American winter athletes also have taken home an original medal by Kiitellä, Issenberg’s studio’s name, which means “to thank, applaud, praise” in Finnish. Ten of her awards have been won by Mikaela Shiffrin, six by Megan McJames, five by Tim Jitloff, four by Ted Ligety, and two by Lindsey Vonn, to name a few.

More than 10 winter sports competitions will be handing out Issenberg’s awards this season, including the U.S. National Skiing Championships, U.S. National Snowboarding and Freeskiing Championships, FIS (International Ski Federation) Telemark World Cup, and the COSMIC Series ski mountaineering cup. COSMIC is a new client this year.

“I chose Lisa over all the other extremely talented people in Colorado because she is core! She understands her market. She participates in the sports she makes awards for. Her connections run deep and in the mountain sports community; that’s especially valuable,” said COSMIC Race Director and Owner Joe Risi. “You can tell that each medal someone actually had to sweat over to make. There is the human element in each medal. You don’t get that from a trophy store.”

Issenberg grew up competing on a freestyle skiing team, and has been living, working and skiing in the San Juan Mountains since 1991. She ski tours in the backcountry, mainly up Red Mountain, and Nordic skis at Top of the Pines above Ridgway, Trout Lake and Lizard Head above Telluride, and Grand Mesa.

She has created work for numerous local nonprofit organizations including Mountainfilm, Telluride Historical Museum, Ah Haa School for the Arts, Telluride Mountain School and Telluride AIDS Benefit. Plus, her jewelry has been represented by the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art since 1991.

The COSMIC medals are informed by mountaineering equipment: a Pozidriv, topo map, compass dial and accessory cord tied with a climbing knot. They were “super fun” to design, Issenberg said, “because the sleek, steel medallions are loaded with symbolism. I like that challenge of how to keep it beautiful and minimal yet get so much in there, too.”

To design each award, she draws inspiration from the types of events and competitors, direction from the organizers and the established branding. Depending on those factors, she chooses from a spectrum of styles ranging from classic and sophisticated to more youthful, artful and edgy.

For instance, the entire design of the medals for the Audi FIS Ski World Cup Finals last March was completely informed by the event’s logo. Event manager Nancy Scheinkman explained, “Aspen is considered a heritage site on the World Cup tour, and America’s Downhill is regarded as one of the more challenging courses, so it was important to design medals that conveyed both of these elements.

“The durability and unique designs that Lisa incorporates into her work create a lasting impression with the athletes. The medals are solid and substantial; they reflect the hard work and sacrifices required by the athletes to earn a place on the podium,” Scheinkman said. “Winning a medal at World Cup Finals is simply a memorable experience in and of itself, and the medal will sit on the athlete’s shelf or wall for years to come as a fond memory of such a glorious achievement.”

The number of awards made by Issenberg for each competition depends on the number of disciplines and categories, but can range from 12 to 100 medals for one event. “When it gets to be over 30 medals, it’s mass production but still by just one person — me. I want each one to be my best creation, so I am present for each rivet that I pound, each surface I polish,” she said.

The foundations for all are various metals including brass, silver, bronze and stainless steel. She individualizes them through polishing, patinas and other processes. 

She also makes trophies for several organizations such as the American Alpine Club, American Mountain Guides Association and American Mountaineering Museum. Her largest award was the North Face Never Stop Exploring Award, given to retailers for exemplifying excellent community service. Nearly 4 square feet of laser-cut steel plates laminated with layers of stained birch plywood and richly hued wool felt, the award is identical on both sides and designed to hang in the storefront window of the recipient. 

Most awards for winter sports competitions are typically under one-half pound and sometimes just over one pound, formed into all shapes and sizes from round medallions to crossed skis and even hatchets. The most “well-endowed” medallion is inspired by a vintage ski pole basket that is awarded at the Audi Power of Four Ski Mountaineering Race in Aspen.

While most of her awards are given out at events across Colorado, her awards have also graced the winners’ stage at international and national competitions in Sugarloaf, Maine, Squaw Valley, California, and Sun Valley, Idaho.

She hopes to get the chance to create medals for a competition in another valley that is near and dear to her heart. Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, where she and her brother competed in freestyle skiing back in the 1980s, is hosting the 2018 Freestyle-Moguls U.S. National Championships. 

“There’s so much joy around the whole process of creating awards that honor people’s accomplishments. I’m so happy to do this as my work, and making the medals for the Freestyle Championships in my old stomping ground would be especially thrilling,” Issenberg said.