A new art show in Washington, D.C., spotlights national park posters from the Depression years, including the frothy falls of Yellowstone, the jagged mountains of Glacier and the native ruins of Bandelier National Monument.
Titled "Posterity," the show at the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum is built around six original posters that date to the Depression years. But it also includes later reproductions and contemporary posters in similar style, covering more than three dozen parks and wildlife refuges.
The original silkscreen posters (also known as serigraphs) were produced from 1938 to 1941, when the park service employed artists through the Works Progress Administration. (The show's subtitle is "WPA's Art Legacy & America's Public Lands.") The artists worked on the UC Berkeley campus and began with Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
As for the artists' names, "that's actually one of the ongoing mysteries," said Tracy Baetz, curator for the Interior Department Museum. Baetz noted that most of the artists didn't sign the works. Apart from Chester Don Powell (an illustrator, draftsman and architect who died in 1964) and Dale A. Miller (who died in 2005), she said, "we know very little about the actual artists. We know there were about 100 working at that Western Laboratories building" on the southwest corner of the Berkeley campus.
That team's artists, whoever they were, went on to make 14 posters for 13 parks (Yellowstone got two; one for its falls and another for Old Faithful). Most of the parks were in the West, and the cost of producing the posters was $12 per 100, Baetz said.
But when World War II began, the project was shelved and the posters were largely forgotten — until 1973, when a seasonal park ranger named Doug Leen came across one of the originals at Grand Teton National Park.
Since then, Leen has made a second career out of vintage posters. His company, Ranger Doug's Enterprises, has not only reproduced the 14 original WPA designs, it has printed more than 25 new designs for other parks in similar vintage style.