“That such mountains and glaciers, lakes and canyons, forests and waterfalls were to be found in this country was a revelation to many who had heard but had not believed.” —Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, National Parks Portfolio, 1916
August 25, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. In celebration of this centennial milestone, my husband and I drove from southern California to southern Utah to visit Bryce, Zion, and Arches national parks. We brought back three screen-printed posters to commemorate hikes through fascinating natural formations and an eye-opening ranger-led canyon walk by the light of the full moon (no flashlights allowed!).
Chester Don Powell painting the original artwork for the Yosemite poster featuring El Capitan. A small version of the Yellowstone waterfall poster sits to his right on the drafting table. The Yellowstone poster featuring Old Faithful geyser is underway at top. Courtesy of the Estate of Richard Powell.
A stereographic card featuring Carleton Watkins' iconic image of Yosemite National Park's El Capitan, 1879. WPA artists used photographs like this one as inspiration for poster illustrations. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This letter from Dorr G. Yaeger, assistant chief of the Museum Division, to Mr. Pinkley, superintendent of Southwestern Monuments, indicates the shift from "hand made and lettered" posters to posters produced by "a silk screen process." This call for requests led to the 13 posters designed by WPA artist Chester Don Powell. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Poster artists working at drafting tables in this WPA studio. Courtesy of the National Park Service History Collection, HFCA 1645.
WPA artists screen-printing posters and placing them in drying racks. The poster, "Indian Court: Blanket Design of the Haida Indians," hanging on the wall at left is by Louis B. Siegrist, San Francisco. Courtesy of the National Park Service History Collection, HFCA 1645.
This photograph of the WPA poster workshop in Chicago, Illinois, shows various stages of screen-printing in progress. Courtesy of Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Art for the Millions.
As it turns out, the prints we brought back are reproductions of posters produced between 1938–41 during the midst of the Great Depression. The originals were created by the artist Chester Don Powell, and printer Dale Miller, who were employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal work-relief program initiated in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The Federal Art Project (FAP) of the WPA provided jobs for over 5000 professional designers, painters, sculptors, photographers, and printers who were out of work. The WPA/FAP poster division, which had locations throughout the country, produced as many as 35,000 posters in a range of styles for a wide array of public institutions and government-sponsored programs and events.
Left: A black-and-white photograph of the original WPA screen-printed poster. Center, top: Reproduction by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises. Doug Leen guessed at the colors because no original printed poster was available. Center, bottom: An original WPA screen-printed poster by Chester Don Powell, artist, and Dale Miller, printer. Right: Ranger Doug’s Enterprises produced a second version based on the original colors.
A series of 13 Powell-Miller posters were produced at the National Park Service’s Western Museum Laboratories in Berkeley, California: Mount Rainier, two versions of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Petrified Forest, Lassen Volcanic, Wind Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, Fort Marion, Grand Teton, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Zion. In addition to promoting the parks, some of these posters publicized activities and events by the Ranger Naturalist Service, geared toward educating the public about the natural environment.
Of the hundreds printed only 41 originals are known to exist in private collections and public archives, most notably the Library of Congress, which has digitized over 900 WPA posters. Originals of two of the posters have never been found: Smoky Mountains and Wind Cave. Fortunately, negatives and black-and-white photographs of all 13 are in the care of the National Park Service.
After the WPA/FAP shut down in 1943, most of the work was lost or destroyed and these posters were all but forgotten until the early 1970s when Doug Leen, who was working as a seasonal park ranger in Grand Teton National Park, blew the dust off an original while cleaning out a barn. In 1993, based on this salvaged original, Leen, who had by this time become a successful dentist, began the tedious analysis to determine the number of screens needed to reproduce the poster. To create “faithful reproductions” of the other 12 he relied on the black-and-white negatives from the National Park Service plus a Grand Canyon poster that had come to light.
Zion National Park These Zion posters feature the Great White Throne. With only black-and-white photographs to go by, Leen had to guess at the colors. After screen-printing the poster at right, the original poster at left turned up. Left: The original screen-printed poster for Zion National Park (ca. 1938) was designed by WPA artist Chester Don Powell and printed by Dale Miller. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Right: This design is based on the historic WPA poster but the colors are different. A second version of this poster in the vintage colors is also produced by Ranger Doug's Enterprises. 13 ½ x 19 inches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
This photograph of the Great White Throne in Zion National Park by eminent photographer George A. Grant became an iconic image of the park and inspired Chester Don Powell's poster. Courtesy of the National Park Service History Collection, George A. Grant.
In 1934 the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of 10 national park stamps featuring images taken by a variety of photographers. George A. Grant's photograph of the Great White Throne at Zion National Park appears at lower left on the 8¢ stamp. Other Grant images include Grand Teton's Crater Lake on the 6¢ stamp and Mesa Verde National Park on the 4¢ stamp. Frank J. Haynes' photograph of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser is at upper right on the 5¢ stamp. Courtesy of Stamp-Collecting-World.
“It took five years to redraw the artwork and build enough screens to print eight colors on each poster,” said Leen. Without printed samples to go by, he guessed at the colors. As other originals gradually resurfaced it became apparent that his color choices (and sometimes design details) weren’t historically accurate. In such cases his company, Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, reworked the design and printed alternate versions of the poster in the vintage colors. “WPA colors tended to be subtler, softer, and more pastel than mine,” said Leen.
Together with graphic designer Brian Maebius, a former seasonal park ranger at Badlands National Park, and screen printer Scott Corey, Leen periodically adds new designs in the style of the originals at the request of individual parks. Ranger Doug’s Enterprises now offers over 53 different designs featuring parks and monuments from Maine to Hawai‘i. The Bryce Canyon poster was the first to be digitally executed in Adobe Illustrator.
As the production process shifted from analog to digital, Maebius used Fontographer to create a custom typeface derived from the original lettering. “This lettering style is firmly grounded in sign painting,” said sign painter and type designer John Downer. “Sign painters call this style thick-and-thin because of the stroke contrast of the letters. Some of the best poster artists of the mid-20th century were proficient with a lettering brush, even if they weren’t bona fide sign painters.”
Bryce Canyon This poster, which doesn't have an historical counterpart, showcases the unique hoodoo formations at Bryce Canyon National Park. It's the first poster by Ranger Doug's Enterprises to be designed digitally using Adobe Illustrator and is one of the most complex designs. 13 ½ x 19 inches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
While on the Navajo Loop Trail scouting for the vista featured on the Bryce Canyon poster, I sought guidance from National Park Service volunteer, Jim from Tampa. Photo by Calvin Woo.
Glacier National Park This reproduction poster was screen-printed in the historic colors. The poster shows Mount Gould above Swiftcurrent Lake on the east side of Glacier National Park. Only two originals are known to exist. 13 1/2 x 19 1/8 inches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
Petrified Forest National Monument This reproduction poster by Ranger Doug's Enterprises is screen-printed in nine colors and uses the split fountain technique to achieve the gradation of color in the background. Only one original is known to exist. 13 1/2 x 18 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
Mount Rainier National Park This limited edition screen-printed poster was republished in the historic colors by Ranger Doug's Enterprises for Mount Rainier’s Centennial in 1999. Six of the original posters are known to exist although two are badly damaged. 13 1/2 x 18 3/8 inches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
The stylized scenes and unique geological landmarks portrayed on the Powell-Miller posters were influenced by photographs taken by eminent National Park Service photographer George A. Grant. These images became iconic symbols identifying individual parks, and were featured on postcards, park guides, and booklets like the National Parks Portfolio first published in 1916.“They were also the inspiration for the 1935 National Park Service stamps issued by the U.S. Post Office,” said Nancy Russell, National Park Service archivist, “and it’s pretty clear that the Grand Teton poster was directly inspired by the glacier diorama made for the park’s museum.”
Screen printing was introduced to the WPA by Anthony Velonis, a painter and printmaker employed by the poster division in New York City. Before his stint at the FAP Velonis designed and screen printed show cards for Stern Brothers department store in New York. To help WPA facilities transition to screen printing, in 1937 he compiled an instructional pamphlet, Technical Problems of the Artist: Technique of the Silk Screen Process, which was dispersed throughout the National Park Service.
The shift from individual “hand made and lettered” posters to use of the “silk screen process” was validated in a letter dated August 26, 1938, from Dorr G. Yeager, assistant chief of the Western Museum Laboratories. In 1940, to distinguish the use of silkscreen as an emerging fine art medium from its traditional application as a commercial printing process, Velonis and Weyhe Gallery director, Carl Zigrosser, coined the term “serigraph.”
Don't Kill Our Wildlife Attributed to John Wagner, this original 1940 screen-printed poster for the National Park Service promoted wildlife conservation, one of the primary goals of the National Park Service since its founding in 1916. New York, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wild Life: The National Parks Preserve All Life This original National Park Service poster, designed by Frank S. Nicholson in 1940, communicated a valued mission of the National Park Service—protection of all natural resources. New York, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The National Parks Preserve Wild Life Designed by J. Hirt in 1939, this original screen-printed poster educated visitors on one of the primary goals of the national parks—to safeguard indigeneous species that inhabit the parks. The split-fountain printing technique that creates a gradual shift of color in the background. New York, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play Designed by Dorothy Waugh in 1935, this original screen-printed poster focused on observing wildlife in their natural habitat. The custom lettering in many of Waugh's posters contain unexpected and sometimes quirky anomalies. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
From single colors to multiple layers of tints and shades, the WPA posters for the National Park Service represent an array of approaches that embraced and challenged the straightforward flatness inherent in screen printing. From the painted and hand-drawn to geometrically constructed imagery and lettering, stylized realism gave way to abstraction as European modernism and Bauhaus design principles were absorbed.
Richard Floethe, an industrial designer and book illustrator who emigrated from Germany, spent a year as a student at the Weimar Bauhaus. In his essay, A Remembrance of the WPA Poster Division, he wrote, “…this one year at the Bauhaus influenced my work permanently.” Floethe headed the FAP in New York and served as art director until 1939. No doubt he shared what he learned at the Bauhaus with other WPA artists. He also tried to change the minds of Washington bureaucrats to allow poster artists to sign their work, but said he “always ran into a stone wall.”
See America WPA/FAP graphic artists designed posters for the "See America" campaign that was sponsored by the U.S. Travel Bureau. Established in 1937 and managed by the National Park Service, the travel bureau encouraged Americans to visit magnificent sites in their own country, like Carlsbad Caverns National Park illustrated in this original screen-printed poster by Alexander Dux, 1939. New York, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
See America, Welcome to Montana Left: Original WPA sketch depicting Chief Mountain in Glacier National Park. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Right: A contemporary poster by Ranger Doug's Enterprises that builds on the sketch. A “Wyoming buckaroo” rearing horse is pencilled-in on the sketch. Leen changed this to a packtrain complete with double diamond hitches. Courtesy of Doug Leen.
See America, Visit the National Parks This original screen-printed poster by WPA artist Harry Herzog features an abstract interpretation of the Lower Falls at Yellowstone National Park, 1940. New York, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
See America, Welcome to Montana An original screen-printed poster by WPA artist Martin Weitzman features a man on horseback and a very stylized mountain range in the distance, 1939. New York, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
See America The Double Arches landmark in Utah's Arches National Park is featured in this original screen-printed poster designed by WPA artist Frank S. Nicholson (between 1936–1939) for the "See America" travel campaign. New York, 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
My husband, Calvin Woo, (lower right) balanced on a steep incline while he captured the same perspective of the double arch featured in Nicholson's poster. He examined the poster on his iPhone, which he held in his right hand, while he snapped pictures on his camera with his left hand. Arches National Park, June 2016. Photo by Susan Merritt.
The 1930’s See America campaign sponsored by the U.S. Travel Bureau, encouraged Americans to vacation at home rather than abroad. See America posters created in New York, like Carlsbad Caverns National Park by Alexander Dux and Arches National Park by Frank S. Nicholson, helped build popular support for the growing number of national parks and monuments scattered around the country.
Another series of posters out of the New York poster division raised awareness of the National Park Service’s commitment to wildlife conservation and the preservation of scenery, natural and historic objects, including John Wagner’s Don’t Kill Our Wild Life and J. Hirt’s The National Parks Preserve Wild Life. Dorothy Waugh’s posters, like Winter Sports and Skiing, Skating, Sliding, Sleighing, publicized recreational activities that could be enjoyed in the parks.
Winter Sports, Dorothy Waugh, WPA/FAP New York, 1930s. Textured shapes allude to three-dimensionality in these stylized figures. Geometric letterforms invite visitors to enjoy winter sports. (Look at those Rs!) Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Skiing, Skating, Sliding, Sleighing, Dorothy Waugh, WPA/FAP New York, 1930. "There was a heavy influence from the work of Cassandre, the French poster artist," wrote Anthony Velonis in his essay "A Remembrance of the WPA" (Posters of the WPA). The geometric shapes and the relationship between image and lettering in this piece by Waugh strongly reflect the influence of European Modernism on American designers during the 1930s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Mystery Veils the Desert, Dorothy Waugh, WPA/FAP New York, 1930s. With just one ink color Waugh successfully portrays the night sky as she explores two approaches to geometric letterforms. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Life at Its Best, Dorothy Waugh, WPA/FAP New York, 1935. Depth is achieved between foreground and background with a limited two-color palette. The lettering of "National Parks" references the rugged mountainous terrain. Courtesy of the National Park Service.
Pueblos of the Southwest: National Parks and Monuments, Dorothy Waugh, WPA/FAP New York, 1930s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Pick Your Park, the National Park Service’s centennial campaign, invites you to visit your favorite of America’s national parks. Along the way you might encounter Ranger Doug with vintage Airstream trailer in tow, en route to deliver an illustrated talk in the spirit of the Ranger Naturalist Service. He eagerly shares the story of these 13 remarkable posters and his tireless search for the missing two. When he finally finds them, he plans to donate the complete set to the National Park Service where he feels they rightfully belong.
Left: Ranger Doug checking color on a Petrified Forest National Park reproduction proof. Courtesy of Doug Leen. Right: The logo and website of Ranger Doug’s Enterprises identifies this 1948 Airstream trailer parked for the night at a campsite.
Check Ranger Doug’s travel itinerary to see if he’ll be coming to a park near you.