“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!).
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Check Ranger Doug’s travel itinerary to see if he’ll be coming to a park near you.