The WPA National Park posters are truly iconic pieces of art, easily recognizable by visitors of National Parks and the wider public all over the United States. Even to those who do not know the interesting story behind their creation, the WPA posters are a synonym for the beauty and attractiveness of American nature, captured on a sheet of paper.
What’s more, the story behind the WPA National Park posters is a rather interesting one. As it turns out, there is much more to these posters than their charming, old-fashioned, and nostalgic style. Their story provides a remarkable insight into a long-gone, romantic period characterized by hardships, struggle, and America’s successful nation-wide effort to overcome and emerge stronger.
This article’s mission is to unravel the facts about the creation of the WPA National Park posters and to tell their fascinating story, from the beginning until today.
The National Park Posters
The National Parks Service was still relatively young at the time of the Great Depression. The extensive building of the National Parks’ infrastructure was seen by President Roosevelt’s administration as a great opportunity to provide jobs for unemployed Americans.
For this purpose, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established. The construction projects gave good results and the idea of promoting the National Parks to the wider American public appeared.
So, the Works Progress Administration came up with the National Parks themed promotional posters. The posters were produced using the serigraphy technique or silver-screening as it is commonly known. Thirteen national parks were included into the project with only the Yellowstone National Park being featured in two promotional posters (The Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls).
Other parks included in the project were Yosemite, Zion, Grand Canyon, Lassen, Grand Teton, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Wind Cave and Fort Marion (known today as Castillo de San Marcos).
Artists who created the National Park posters were based in the Park Service offices in Berkley, California and in the Western Museums Laboratories at the Berkley University campus. At the time, it was a sizeable operation. Posters were just a small part of a wider project. Topological maps, trail signs, dioramas, and models were built there too. Both sites were one-stop-shops, equipped with dark rooms, wood and metalworking shops, offices, and an art department.
Serigraphy involved a process that was not so widely used in the United States at the time. At the start of the Works Progress Administration’s venture into the world of arts, most posters were still painted manually. As more artists were getting engaged with the project, new techniques emerged. Inspired by European printing inventions and the Bauhaus movement, the WAP National Park Posters were born in the form we know them today.
The posters remain the iconic representation of the style of the times. Back then they were as beautiful and distinguished as they are now, but nowadays they are also appreciated for that special WPA touch.
The whole project lasted from 1938 until 1941 and it was abandoned soon after the United States entered the Second World War. Only around 1,400 original prints were produced, about a hundred for each park. The first one was the Grand Teton National Park poster, in 1938.
Today, it is believed that no more than 40 original posters still exist. The Wind Cave and the Great Smokey Mountains original posters are considered lost forever. Only black-and-white photographs witness that they existed once.
The project was canceled and the WPA dissolved, but the peculiar fusion of arts and politics continued to thrive in the years that followed. However, to better understand how this form of government-sponsored art first came to be, we have to go back to the beginning.
Government Supported Art
For all its universal importance, art has rarely been treated as a common good or interest. History is full of stories about famous but poor and misunderstood artists who gave so much to the world and received little in return.
This article deals with one opposite example. A time when the United States government decided to directly fund art and provide jobs for talented, unemployed artists. The WPA National Park Posters project took place in a time of turbulence and change in American history.
The project is a phenomenon from an era long gone, whose cultural and artistic values are still very much appreciated today. But, many argue that it is a product of circumstances rather than desire to create art.
The Great Depression
It was the 1930’s and the Great Depression was in full swing. People all over the country were losing their jobs, and an overwhelming sense of insecurity lingered in the air. When the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was sworn in the office in 1933, a feeling of hope emerged.
President Roosevelt’s administration had a plan. The basic idea behind it was to increase government spending by investing in public works and projects. The plan was named New Deal and it was supposed to provide a job for the long-time unemployed “breadwinner” in every family.
Unsurprisingly, the plan worked well. It was not a long-term solution but the course of history, and the years that followed proved it to be a success. Unqualified workers benefited the most from the New Deal, as most jobs did not require specific skills. However, many professionals and, among them artists, found new employment during this time.
The New Deal worked through a set of different administrations and agencies. Each of these was assigned to focus on different segments of the economy. Support was provided for the unemployed, farmers, youth, and the elderly. New regulations were implemented in banking and the monetary system.
The Works Progress Administration
One of these agencies was the Works Progress Administration or WPA. As the largest of all the New Deal agencies, the WPA was responsible for the biggest projects such as roads, bridges and railways construction. It was founded in 1935 and by the time it was dissolved, in 1943, it employed more than 8 million people.
But it wasn’t all about the big projects. A small part of the Works Progress Administration was the Federal Project Number One. This project was oriented towards the arts. Many writers, actors, directors, musicians, and other artists from all over the country were engaged with this project. Art ventures were funded and produced on a large scale, with the primary goal to provide employment. As a result, more than few artists remained uncredited for their work.
The Artists Behind the Posters
At the time, the WPA National Park posters were not considered to have a great artistic value, so they were treated without particular care and few of them received attention. They were used as wall decorations in National Parks’ offices and gift shops. They were sold or given away, and often thrown into the garbage. The artists who created the posters were not given much credit either. For this reason, most of their names remain unknown today.
Interestingly considering the technique used, the posters were not signed. A serigraph is an original work of art, but given the purpose of these posters, the signatures must have been deemed unnecessary. The result is that today, we know the name of only one of the artists who took part in creating the WPA National Parks Posters.
His name is Chester Don Powell. Prior to the Great Depression, Chester owned an art studio in San Francisco. The crisis drove him out of business and he was picked up by the WPA to work for the National Parks Services. His talent was soon recognized and he became a part of the National Parks Posters project. Chester Don Powell is attributed to creating the Yellowstone, Zion, and Yosemite serigraphs.
In the long run, the government funding unintentionally did a lot of good. Everything was far from perfect. Pay cuts were common and both the Congress and the Senate never truly accepted spending money on arts. Still, in the hardships of the economic decline that gripped the nation, government funding helped many artists to get jobs and survive while working in their professions. They also became more connected, organized, and ready for the post-war economic boom.
For many years the posters were forgotten. The new age came and the economy and the living standard of the working people sky-rocketed in the years after the war. The Great Depression looked like a bad dream and artists enjoyed the merits of the booming advertising sector.
In 1973, Doug Lean, a park ranger at the Grand Teton national park stumbled by chance upon one of the posters. Doug was helping his colleagues to clean out an old barn when he noticed the Grand Teton National Park poster covered in dust. Himself a nature photographer and silk-screen artist, Doug was intrigued by the looks of the poster. He took it home and hanged it on the wall.
At the time, the poster was nothing more than a piece of paper for most people, including Doug’s boss. Doug later became a dentist and when he opened his dental practice he took the poster with him as decoration. About that time, he became more intrigued by it and decided to find out more. Doug’s research made him realize that posters for other parks also exist. He made it a sort of personal mission to find and rescue them.
Thirteen black-and-white negatives of original posters were found in the National Park Service archives in the 1990’s. Since no copyright claims existed, Doug Lean decided to re-edit all the original posters.
The original WPA National Parks posters can be found on the website of the Library of the Congress. They are the public domain and, because of their popularity, people often print them on t-shirts of coffee mugs. But, Doug is convinced that only the posters made in the same way as the 1930’s originals have the true WPA feel to them.
American society and art-lovers all around the world should be grateful to passionate enthusiasts like Doug Lean for all their efforts to preserve the knowledge about great art creations from the past. The actions of such people can often prove to be more important than those of big and powerful institutions.
Several exhibitions have been organized in recent years to show off the WPA posters. Judging by their popularity and their appeal on the internet and beyond, public interest in the posters seems only to be growing. Collectors are also keen on these rare items and prices are expected to rise each time that one of them becomes available for sale. Back in 1938, the production cost of a poster was 12 cents. Recently, the Grand Teton National Park poster was sold for $9000 in a New York auction.
The cultural significance of these posters is immense, not only because they are rare, but also because they have an amazing story to tell. It is a story of an important time in history, an exciting time in which many clues that could help us better understand today’s world are hidden. Furthermore, they tell a story of the individual’s pursuit of happiness and of a collective effort made by the nation to overcome difficulties.
There are many good designs, but only few can be called timeless. The unknown artists whose creative energy was invested into the creation of the WPA National Park posters may never get the credit they deserve, but their legacy will be an inspiration for generations of art lovers.
Photos used from the LIFE’s Photo Archive are for research purposes only. Posters are availble for viewing from the Library of Congress website and are in the public doamin.