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From Yellowstone To Grand Canyon, WPA Posters Celebrate National Parks

May 26, 2014
Originally published on May 26, 2014 7:23 am

If you've ever been to a national park and stopped off in the gift shop, you may have seen drawings of iconic park sights for sale as posters or post cards. The brightly colored print reproductions showcase the parks' impressive vistas, such as Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Canyon's overlooks.

The originals of some of those prints are currently on display in an exhibit called "Posterity" at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Curator Tracy Baetz explains that the silk screen printed posters — known as serigraph — were done by Works Progress Administration artists for the National Park Service from 1938 to 1941.

"There were 14 original designs; we have six of those originals here," Baetz says. There may have been 1,400 or so originals, but only about 40 are known to survive.

"The first one that they produced was this sort of experimental one in 1938 for the Grand Teton National Park," she says. The poster reads: "Meet the Ranger Naturalist at Jenny Lake Museum" and shows a steep alpine landscape, clear waters and blue skies.

Not much is known about the original artists except that they worked at a Park Service office in Berkeley, Calif. The project ended with the onset of World War II and the posters were all but forgotten until the day a seasonal park ranger named Doug Leen came across one at the Grand Teton National Park.

"We were cleaning out an old shed just nearby and I stumbled on this poster hanging up in this barn literally covered with dust," Leen says. "And we were going to take everything up to the dump, and I looked at this poster that I'd found and realized it was a screen print, so there must be others. And certainly it was a beautiful design and well done and I thought, 'Well perhaps [it's] something I shouldn't put in the burn pile,' so I took it home and thumb-tacked it up on to the wall."

Leen later became a dentist and hung the poster in his Seattle office, all the while wondering whether there were others like it out there. With a little research, he discovered the Park Service archives had black and white photos of posters for other parks. He hired an artist, Brian Maebius, to replicate them, guessing at the original colors, and the reproductions were a hit. Soon, other parks approached him to design retro-styled posters. Eventually, Leen says, the company he started, Ranger Doug's Enterprises, became bigger than his dental practice:

"I've kind of tried to put myself back and, you know, set my watch back to 1938 and try to get inside the heads of these artists," Leen says. "Actually, my biggest compliment is when an art historian calls me up and says, 'Were these printed in the '30s or is this something you've made up? Which is it?' And I've had that happen several times and it's kind of flattering, in a way, because we've hit the mark by going back in time."

At the Interior Museum, curator Tracy Baetz says it's fun to watch visitors admire the old and new posters. "People bring so much of their own personal history with the parks to it and it's not uncommon to hear people come in and point to one and say, 'Oh, that's where we got engaged,' or, 'That's where we had that great family vacation.' "

The exhibit will be on view until spring 2015.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Washington, D.C. is home to many famous museums, like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. But off the tourist trail, there are some other hidden gems. One of these is tucked away inside the headquarters of the Interior Department.

NPR's Brian Naylor went exploring.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Interior Museum can be found just inside the building's main entrance. And on this day, curator Tracy Baetz was there to show me around the museum's current exhibit. It's called simply "Posterity."

TRACY BAETZ: What we're looking at here is a selection of serigraphs, so silkscreen-printed posters, that were done for the Park Service by WPA artists from 1938 to 1941. There were 14 original design. We have six of those originals here and then a series of contemporary additions that are done in the style of the WPA artist.

NAYLOR: If you've ever been to a national park and stopped off in the gift shop, you may have seen reproductions of these prints for sale as posters or postcards. They're brightly colored drawings of iconic park sites - the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone, overlooks of the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains. There may have been 1,400 or so of the originals, says Baetz, but only about 40 are known to survive.

BAETZ: The first one that they produced was this sort of experimental one in 1938 for the Grand Teton National Park. And it depicts meeting the ranger naturalist at the Jenny Lake Museum with an alpine, you know, landscape and, you know, crystal-clear waters and blue skies.

NAYLOR: Not much is known about the original artists except that they worked at a Park Service office in Berkeley, Calif. The project ended with the onset of World War II, and the posters were all but forgotten the day a seasonal park ranger came across one at the Grand Teton National Park. The ranger's name was Doug Leen.

DOUG LEEN: We were cleaning out an old shed just nearby. And I stumbled on this poster hanging up in this barn, literally covered with dust. And we were going to take everything up to the dump, and I looked at this poster that I had found and realized it was a screen print, so there must be others.

And certainly it was beautifully designed and well done. And I thought, well, perhaps it was something I shouldn't put in the burn pile. So I took it home and thumb-tacked it up on the wall.

NAYLOR: Leen would later become a dentist and hang the poster in his Seattle office wondering whether there might be others like it out there. With a little research, he discovered the Park Service Archives had black and white photos of posters for other parks. He hired an artist, Brian Maebius, to replicate them, guessing that the original colors.

The reproductions were a hit, and soon other parks approached him to design retro-styled posters. Eventually, Leen says, the company he started, Ranger Doug's Enterprises, became bigger than his dental practice.

LEEN: I've kind of tried to put myself back and, you know, set my watch back to 1938 and try to get inside the heads of these artists. And actually my biggest compliment is when an art historian calls me up and says, are - were these printed in the '30s, or is this something you've made up, which is it? And I've had that happen several times, and it's kind of flattering in a way because we've hit the mark by going back in time.

NAYLOR: At the Interior Museum, Tracy Baetz says it's fun to watch visitors admire the old and new posters.

BAETZ: People bring so much of their own personal history with the parks to it. And it's not uncommon to hear people come in and point to one and say, oh, that's where we got engaged, or, that's where he had that great family vacation, do you remember when?

NAYLOR: The exhibit will be on view at the Department of the Interior Museum weekdays until next spring. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.