Behind the Metal: How the Athletes Unlimited Medals are created

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Hope Ballard
Savanna Collins
Mar 22, 2023

There’s a basketball that no longer sits on the racks stowed away inside Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas.

The same goes for a handful of softballs that instead of being tossed in a bucket in Parkway Bank, have made their way to a metalworking shop in Ridgway, Colo. Mailed with them were AU volleyballs and lacrosse netting too.

All with a new, but temporary, home as they are transformed.

Next time the balls and netting are sent out they will no longer be sports equipment but a work of art.

The artist

Before answering how a volleyball can be transformed into a custom metal award, let’s meet who is making them.

Lisa Issenberg is a metal artist who specializes in awards as recognition. Her interest in metalwork began during a study abroad trip to Greece when, through an artisan’s window, she saw him working his craft and knew, “As soon as I got back I was gonna figure out how to do that.”

That moment of wandering changed the course of her life and career.

Issenberg completed her undergraduate degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston and then she started taking studio classes in the field at San Francisco State. She moved to Telluride, Colo., and started her career with a jewelry studio and steel shop. Her studies and work continued to evolve, earning a Master’s in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn.

In 2012 she founded Kiitellä to focus on her niche of award-making.

Issenberg has produced awards for environmental efforts, activism, film festivals, mountaineering organizations, and industry brands. Her clients have been as diverse as Visa and the X Games, The North Face, The American Alpine Club and US Ski & Snowboard.

She is the creator and designer of all medals for Athletes Unlimited winners across every sport. In 2023, she is unveiling a new design incorporating a piece of equipment for each sport.

The process

The 2023 medals will feature Issenberg’s latest concept for AU to incorporate used materials for each sport: a basketball, a volleyball, a softball, and lacrosse netting.

This idea prompted Issenberg to change her approach from her traditional flat, two-dimensional medals.

“The materials really dictate what is possible,” Issenberg explained. She gave the example of the Basketball medal. “When you slice a circle out, it’s got a convexity to it. And so that beautifully dictated the overall shape of the medals.”

It was a challenge she had not encountered in her medal creation before. The metal surrounding the balls would need to have concave and convex shapes. That led to questions.

Would it fit perfectly? Can the edges be smooth enough?

“Often, because something is handmade, there’s beauty in the imperfection.”

Her ideology stems from a Japanese term and philosophy Issenberg has adopted in her craft called wabi-sabi (侘寂). It is described as recognizing or searching for beauty in imperfection.

The process for creating the AU medals was experimental for her. For years, she’s honed in on what the materials will do, how they polish and cut, the thickness, and how they weld together.

“I really like to push it and see what I don’t know,” she laughed. “[See] what can be made better, new, fresh, and exciting for the winners.”


The art

The design features a triple layer of metal with the game-used balls or netting sandwiched in between. Just like the game-used equipment, the rest of Issenberg’s materials are upcycled. The aluminum back is made from used road and park signage. Even the steel and brass are scraps or made from recycled content.

“With an athletic organization, there’s pure energy. There’s hardcore exertion and passion… the energy inspires me. There’s a spark to where these are going.”

Issenberg has completed the medals for the 2023 Basketball season and will start on the awards for Softball next.

Her custom works of art will reach their final destination at each sports Closing Ceremony, when a champion is crowned and the other award winners are recognized.

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