This article originally appeared in Arts Perspective Magazine.
The look is iconic. Clean, simple lines. Layers of color with black-and-white details and sans-serif fonts, a modern merging of cubism and geometric abstraction. The look is monumental. Small works of art writ large by compositional devices such as centricity, axial symmetry, diagonals and overlapping. The look is the graphic poster style of the Works Progress Administration, a work relief program instituted by U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration in 1935.
Following the Great Depression, nearly 30 percent of the able workforce in the United States had no job to go to and no paycheck coming in. The WPA provided more than eight million jobs over eight years to carry out public work projects, from building roads to operating large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. Almost every community in the U.S. had a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency, and it particularly benefitted rural and Western populations. The art programs were part of Federal Project Number One, which administered the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Writers Project and Federal Art Project (FAP). By 1938 the FAP existed in all 48 states (the size of the U.S. at that time).
The FAP is most remembered for its murals, hundreds of which were painted on walls in schools, hospitals and airports, along with those commissioned by the Treasury Department for post offices and courthouses. However, between 1935 and1943 more than 2 million posters from 35,000 different designs were produced as part of the FAP. Today, only 900 original WPA posters survive in the custody of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Divisions.
“The government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form,” Richard Floethe, a German-born industrial designer and head of the New York poster division of the FAP wrote in a 1930s essay. The Bauhaus-educated Floethe encouraged artists working with him in the poster division to experiment with bold colors and many different styles. Artists like Anthony Velonis brought the new technique of silk screening to the department and trained other artists in the process. Posters that previously were created individually with hand lettering could now be mass-produced; as many as 600 posters were printed in a day. Velonis wrote a book, Silk Screen Technique, which became the “how-to” manual for the poster divisions and traveled extensively advising FAP artists.
It is likely that Velonis traveled to California where 13 National Parks subscribed to the WPA Federal Poster Project. National Park posters were silk screened between 1938 and 1941 at the Western Museum Laboratories in Berkley, California, which produced interactive displays for the parks as well.
It was the image of Jenny Lake at Grand Teton National Park that first caught the attention of Doug Leen (also known as Ranger Doug) in 1973. The young park ranger was on clean-up duty, clearing out an old horse stall at Beaver Creek, when he noticed the poster hanging by a nail on a crossbeam. He asked his boss if he could have it, neither of them realizing it was a rare, original WPA National Park poster. The poster hung in Leen’s Seattle home for 20 years before the director of the Grand Teton Natural History Association called, looking for a poster idea to commemorate the renovation and relocation of the Jenny Lake Museum. Leen had the perfect image and faithfully reproduced the poster, printing 600 copies for that event. It was then that he contacted Tom Durant, who managed the print and photograph collection at the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The Grand Canyon had recently called Durant, asking about the provenance of a poster they wanted to republish, and Durant realized the design sounded similar to Leen’s Grand Teton poster. Durant located 13 black-and-white photographs of National Park posters and gave them to Leen. From those 13 photographs, Ranger Doug’s Enterprises was born, reproducing original posters and designing new park images in the style of the FAP poster artists.
Since this encounter in 1993, a Petrified Forest original has been discovered, and five Mount Rainier posters turned up at a garage sale in South Seattle, three sandwiched together in one frame. Bandelier National Monument discovered more than a dozen posters. And in 2005, an anonymous collector based in Los Angeles paid $70 for two posters in a junk store. After contacting Leen, the collector returned to the store and purchased seven more posters, all original. The nine posters were sold through the Swann Gallery in New York for $38,500 plus a 20 percent gallery commission. The Library of Congress purchased five of them for their archives. According to Leen, the original park posters were printed in very limited quantities, perhaps as few as 50, and were not for sale, but created to entice people to visit the parks. “As a result, most posters did not survive,” Leen said. He’s documented only 36 survivors to date.
It was Leen who created the Square Tower image for Mesa Verde National Park in 2006, a poster done in the WPA style, but an original Leen design. Leen visited Square Tower, which has been closed to guests since about 1940. Square Tower is the tallest Ancient Puebloan structure and what the park wanted to emulate on their poster.
Another original WPA poster inspired Ruthie Osa to create her version for Mesa Verde’s centennial celebration. Osa said her grandfather had the Yellowstone geyser poster hanging in his basement, and she fell in love with the graphics. Trained as a fine artist and then as a graphic designer, Osa loves the rich color of the silk screen process and uses Adobe Illustrator to replicate the layering of color and achieve the clean line that happens with traditional silk screen. Her poster design began with a hand-drawn image that was scanned into her computer and then redrawn in Illustrator as a Vector document. She is particularly fond of the WPA style for its control of color. “It’s a discipline to convey space and form intelligently without the fuss of painting,” Osa said via telephone from her home studio in Olathe, Kansas. “You have to know how to build a subject up in layers. It’s laborious. I consider it a thinking man’s art. You have to have an intuitive understanding of composition.”
In the book Posters of the WPA by Christopher DeNoon, art historian Francis V. O’Connor postulates in the introduction that the WPA poster program allowed American abstract artists “to make aesthetically revolutionary design principles the basis of a socially revolutionary art.” It was that revolutionary-ness that concerned many on the right who disliked the WPA programs. Others considered the FAP program a lifesaver that made it possible for artists to continue to paint. The FAP budget was one percent of the total WPA budget and made it possible for artists to survive the most difficult economic time in U.S. history.
For Richard Floethe, the goal of the Poster Division was to “preserve the skill of the unemployed artist” and return artists “to private industry with more knowledge in their profession and greater confidence in themselves.” This truly American poster style continues to inspire artists working today.
Posters are reproductions from originals reprinted courtesy of Ranger Doug Enterprises, the only source for WPA National Park serigraphed posters.