The Robin’s egg blue poster with the bold block lettering was stained, worn, faded, and even tattered a bit around the edges. It promoted ranger programs (“a free government service”) at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and is one of a unique set of posters that artists from the Works Progress Administration created in the late 1930s and early 1940s to draw interest to our national parks.
When Grand Teton seasonal ranger Doug Leen spotted the poster in the early 1970s, it was destined for the dump. “It was very early in my park seasonal career. I found an original poster in a barn, at the Beaver Creek barn, and it was going to the dump along with all this other junk,” Leen recalled.
“I pulled this thing down and—I was a Jenny Lake ranger, I worked at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station—so I asked my boss if I could have it, and he said, “Yeah, take it home with you.”
“Nobody thought anything of it in 1970. This thing was 30 years old, it was just an old piece of paper.”
Today that “old piece of paper” could be worth up to $9,000, the recent selling price for a WPA poster of Grand Canyon National Park at a New York auction house. That’s an astounding price when National Park Service staff back in 1938 figured it would cost about $12 to create 100 prints, or 12 cents apiece.
For 20 years Leen didn’t think much more about that Grand Teton poster, other than that it was beautiful. But in 1993 it launched him into a passionate career built on more than just a profit motive. It also led him down a road of misappropriated artworks and cheap copycats, with a determination to see the original WPA posters returned to the National Park Service.
“I’ve found 41 original posters and know where they all are. Most are within the public domain—park collections, the Library of Congress and the NPS,” said Leen. “Two slipped off the auction block to private collectors—one Mount Rainier and one Yosemite. However, five other Mount Rainiers have been found--two of which are back into that park’s collection. Sadly, the Yosemite was the only known copy and was auctioned off to a private collector. The final math is that 11 of 14 posters have been recovered into the public domain, one (Yosemite) is still at large and two have never been found—Great Smoky Mountain and Wind Cave.”
A Pre-War Art Project
WPA artists began this project in 1938. The National Park Service’s Western Museum Laboratories proposed the posters and other materials as a way to promote hikes and landscapes in the fledgling National Park System.
“Since issuing the publication ‘Miscellaneous Products of the Western Museum Laboratories,’ we have hardly been able to keep up with the requests from the parks for various items,” Dorr G. Yeager, the assistant chief of the Museum Division of the Western Museum Laboratories in Berkeley, California, wrote to Frank Pinckley, superintendent at Southwestern National Monuments, the administrative arm for monuments in the Southwest, in late August of 1938.
“We soon found that it would be absolutely impossible to fill the orders from the parks for these posters if they were hand made (sic) and lettered,” Yeager continued. “We have therefore put in a silk screen process, especially for colored posters, by which we can turn them out in large quantities.”
The colorful posters truly are works of art. Studiously colored in buffs, umbers, blues, tans, oranges and reds, they capture the park landscapes, and depict the wonders of the young park system. Yellowstone National Park was portrayed in two posters; one depicted Old Faithful in full steaming eruption, another the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Lassen Volcanic National Park was captured in full steam phase, while the soaring cliffs of Zion National Park dwarf Zion Canyon far below.
But only 14 parks were produced in print before the onset of World War II shuttered the project. Only 50 to 100 copies of each poster were produced, for a total of perhaps 1,000, figures Leen, a gregarious, 69-year-old bear of a man. This year he’s crisscrossing the country, telling the story of the WPA prints as his contribution to the National Park Service Centennial.
“Parks just didn’t get around to signing up for it. And there was only a three-year period that these were made,” he said during a call from an Asheville, North Carolina, campground near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “The first print was Grand Teton. I suspect the second two were the two Yellowstones. All three were made from Haynes postcard images. The WPA artists were learning how to make posters as well.”
Ranger Doug To The Rescue
Leen spent seven summers at Grand Teton before heading off to dental school and a successful career as a dentist, but returned to the parks in a roundabout way in 1993. That year, the wife of his old Park Service boss contacted Leen. She wanted to make a commemorative poster of the Jenny Lake museum because the building was being moved away from the lake’s shoreline. Leen sent her a copy of same Jenny Lake poster he had saved back in 1973, and soon found himself in the print business.
“I ended up reproducing this in the silk screen style, identical to what the WPA artists did, and that’s been my signature,” said Leen. He first launched his company—Ranger Doug’s Enterprises—around 14 of these original prints. “This is why what I’m doing stands out from all the copycats that have followed me. I’m copying the WPA style. … I’m pretty faithful to the origin of how these are made, silk screen, and I work with each park.”
Dorr Yeager had a different impression of the first poster for Grand Teton National Park. “This poster for Grand Teton was made up more or less as an experiment and does not in any way represent the best which can be obtained by the process,” Yeager wrote in his letter to Pinckley. “Future posters, especially the lettering, will be of a much higher standard.”
Leen shakes his head at that portion of the letter.
“The lettering on the Grand Teton poster is the most stylized and beautiful script. It’s just bold,” he said. “This was a revolutionary artistic statement with fonts. Nobody ever messed with fonts before. The French did, but the flavor of WPA fonts was a derivative of the Russian Revolution that eventually made their way onto these Depression era posters. Today, this font, you can go to Microsoft Office and look in Microsoft Word, and there’s one called ‘NPS 1935, which is the wrong date because this font was not developed until 1938, but anyway, it’s become so popular. And here this letter by Dorr Yeager said they could do better.”
Leen’s curiosity about the prints’ background led him to the National Park Service’s Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, offices. There he found 13 black-and-white negatives of original prints. Those negatives, along with his own original Grand Teton poster, were the models that provided the small details that WPA artist Chester Don Powell used in his originals nearly 80 years ago.
The Missing Prints
Through Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, Leen makes faithful replicas of the old WPA posters, and keeps adding to his original list of 14 parks. His latest production, for Haleakala National Park in Hawaii, depicts the Haleakala Observation Station at 9,740 feet with a ranger looking out across the volcanic crater, filled with color from the sunrise. The print is a spectacular burst of color; ten colors, actually, notes Leen. His small staff is working now on a poster of the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias in Yosemite National Park in California, due out August 24 at the dedication there.
Leen is also searching for two missing originals of the WPA works— those of Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. So far he’s managed to obtain 11 of the original 14 park prints, and knows another is in a private collection.
“I just spent a week here in Great Smoky looking at every antique store, every historical group, interviewing librarians, old ex-park rangers that live in the area, trying to find the Great Smoky Mountains poster. It’s never been found,” he said. “What we do know about it is we have a black-and-white photo of it, and that’s it. The same is true for the Wind Cave. That’s why I went to Spearfish, South Dakota. I want to find these last two posters.
“I’ve found 12 of the 14, and of those 12, 11 are in the public domain. These are the ones I’m donating back. The 12th one is Yosemite, and it disappeared in an auction. The Library of Congress ran out of money, I ran out of money, and it went to a private buyer. The gallery won’t divulge their client. I’ve written them a letter, explaining the importance if this could join its brethren in the set that I’m trying to build for the National Park Service, and I’ve gotten no responses so far.”
Leen’s decades-long search has turned up originals in the oddest places: garages in Seattle, file drawers at Bandelier National Monument (where they were used as file dividers), and even an attic in California. He even learned of a scheme where someone impersonated himself to obtain two original prints from the son of Chester Don Powell. Along with these two originals, all the family photos of this process disappeared for 15 years; meanwhile the last surviving screen printer, Dale Miller—the “DM” scratched into the Lassen design— died, taking this history with him.
As frustrating and time-consuming as his hunt has been, Leen’s efforts to both gain Park Service support for recovering the original prints and embracing the history of the WPA artworks have been equally so. His traveling WPA art show has taken him from Albuquerque to Pasadena to San Antonio, as well as to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Saguaro, Big Bend, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. Before heading out on the road, Leen approached National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to see if the agency could help underwrite the trek.
“Doug, we don’t have the budget to take your exhibit on the road,” Leen recalled the director telling him. “I said, ‘Jon, I’m your best ambassador in the Park Service right now, and I’m willing to work for free. But I need a little momentum behind me, a little wind in my sail.’
“And basically they turned me down. That’s why I’m doing this on my own.”
The road trip already has already cost Leen one vehicle. His Toyota FJ Cruiser broke down, forcing Leen to purchase a new SUV to pull his vintage 1948 Airstream mobile home.
Some of Leen’s talks have as few as four or five visitors, and some have packed the house. He calls each park about a month ahead and tells this history to anyone who will listen. One 8 a.m. scheduled talk in a huge auditorium yielded only one attendee— who returned again to his second talk that day and then purchased more than $1,000 worth of reproductions—the lifeblood of this mission. Leen’s park visits, while designed to promote the parks, also have left him concerned over their plight.
“What I’m seeing is more and more volunteers and fewer and fewer rangers in the parks—this worries me,” Leen said.
“Also, there is more onus on the bookstores to raise money for their cash-strapped parks and they are flooding the markets with off-shore ‘retro’ everything,” he continued. “Often my historic posters hang in the corner without an explanation of their unique history. It’s frustrating.”
And when he does reach a park he spends a bit of time educating park staff and gift shop and bookstore employees on the print’s history.
“Why I’m doing it, I guess the only reason is I’m the only one that can do it, and I guess there’s some duty thrown in there,” Leen said, sighing. “These prints could easily have been swept under the rug and we never would have seen them.”