Recreating the WPA Park Posters: Interview with Doug Leen, Ranger Doug’s Enterprises

Recreating the WPA Park Posters: Interview with Doug Leen, Ranger Doug’s Enterprises

Yellowstone WPA Poster - courtesy of Library of CongressDigital scan of original Yellowstone National Park WPA poster. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Between 1938 and 1941, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) produced a series of serigraph posters for National Parks as part of the WPA’s Federal Art Project.  Of the 14 parks posters produced, very few survived the years.

Thanks to Doug Leen, who worked as a seasonal ranger at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station in Grand Teton National Park for seven years, many of these park posters have been faithfully recreated and new posters in the spirit of the WPA series have been introduced.  Ranger Doug’s Enterprises publishes over 40 park posters today.

We asked Doug, who resides in Kupreanof, Alaska, where he practices dentistry, about the history of the project and what inspired the recreation of the original posters as well as the new designs.

MapQuest: How many posters has Ranger Doug’s Enterprises recreated?  How many new posters have been created in the spirit of the WPA style?

Doug Leen: There were only 14 original parks that had posters made by the WPA artists (in Berkeley, Calif.).  To those 14, I found two additional park images created by the New York City WPA poster project (these are the two See America posters of Arches and Carlsbad Caverns).  I needed 16 images in order to create boxes of note cards of 8 each.   You will notice that some of the posters I now publish come in two colors.  The reason for this was that I was working only from black and white photographs and only knew the art design, not colors so I made them up.  After publishing my interpretations, many originals began to turn up and of course, they were different colors–so I now offer both in some instances.

On the heels of this project, parks began coming to me and asking if I could make them a poster that would fit into this WPA style, which resulted in Devils Tower.  From this poster, I learned that we could extend this idea to all park, so I hired an artist and began to approach all parks.  Today we’ve published 37 parks in total with plans to complete most major parks and monuments before the 2016 NPS Centennial.

How closely have you worked with the National Park Service and Library of Congress on the recreations and new posters?

Grand Teton National Park, Jenny Lake Museum - recreated by Ranger Doug
Recreation of the Jenny Lake Museum at Grand Teton National Park WPA Poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius

When I first published the Jenny Lake poster (Grand Teton National Park), they didn’t want to do a second edition, so I created an interpreted version of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful.  At that time I hadn’t found the 14 black and white photos.  Once discovering these photos, I tossed my interpretation and published the historic geyser, and the Grand Teton National Park poster sales also started to climb.  I learned from this that each park potentiated sales of others and a certain critical mass was needed, however the parks are set up in such a way that you have to sell each park individually.

So in the beginning, the parks were hard to convince, especially since I was screen printing these, which required about a $15,000 initial investment for each park.  I shouldered the risk at first.  Eventually, parks came to me. When I mentioned “posters” most parks said they didn’t do posters — thinking of a bear standing in a garbage can with the lid balanced on its head.  In fact, most parks had forgotten their history, including these wonderful posters, so I made it my mission to bring them back and re-educate parks to the WPA-CCC.

I sent two copies to the Library of Congress each time I published so 70 years from now, we would have copies stashed somewhere.  Interestingly, the Library of Congress had no park posters in their meager collection.

Then in 2005, a Los Angeles collector found nine original posters in a second-hand store and eventually these went on the auction block.  I bid on two of them — the bidding was fast and furious with the Grand Canyon poster selling for more $9,000!  He had purchased them for only $70 each.  At auction, it turns out I was bidding against the Library of Congress.  In all, we secured 7 of the 9.  I’ve now four in my private collection, and the Library and I hope to exhibit these for the 2016 NPS Centennial.

Finally, I do work with each park and usually submit preliminary designs.  I like to visit each park and specifically search through their archives and old brochures.  I work closely with another former ranger, Brian Maebius, who holds both geology and fine arts degrees, and is a computer whiz to boot. He is listed as co-artist on all our contemporary works.  In truth, I can’t draw a stick figure, but have good composition skills.  He makes sense out of all my vague ideas and we sometimes go back and forth with dozens of design changes before it looks right.  Each one presents special problems — some roll right off the presses and others present a serious struggle.

Do you have a favorite memory of visiting the national parks for this project?

Square Tower at Mesa Verde National Park by Ranger Doug in the style of the old WPA Posters.
Square Tower at Mesa Verde National Park by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius in the style of the old WPA Posters.

One of my most memorable ‘research’ trips was to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to make their centennial poster featuring Square Tower.  This tower is the tallest Ancient Puebloan structure in the Southwest, and has been off limits to the public since about 1940.  It also requires quite a series of steep ladder descents to reach it.  The park wanted Square Tower featured, so we made the trip down the cliffs and crawled around the old structures.  In the bottom of Square Tower, I saw an old corn cob — perhaps 700 years old!  It really made me realize how closely related these people were to us today.  After an experience such as this, one contemplates the abandonment of this unique culture and the subsequent discovery and pillaging of these areas.

Do you have a favorite of the posters that have been created?

They’re like your children — you love them all.

Grand Teton National Park (Jenny Lake Museum) was the first in this historic series and is very stylized with unique fonts.  Three original copies of this poster exist.  Bandelier was the last in 1941 and it was completely different, stylistically.

The two Yellowstone posters were derived from old Haynes postcards, which were hand-colored, black-and-white photos and were very crude designs — but the Geyser is our most popular.

For contemporary designs, I’d vote for Saguaro National Park in Arizona, General Grant (Kings Canyon National Park) in California, and Acadia National Park in Maine.

Are there any park posters coming soon that  visitors and enthusiasts should look for?

Absolutely!  Badlands just came off the drawing board (computer screen, rather) and should be out by early June.  I’ve designs in the works for Statue of Liberty, Dinosaur, Death Valley, Big Bend, Gettysburg, Mount Rushmore and many others.

Recreated and contemporary posters can be purchased from Ranger Doug’s Enterprises. Check out a few more of Ranger Doug’s recreations and new posters below!

Recreated Posters

Zion National Park PosterZion National Park. Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Petrified Forest National Monument, recreated by Ranger DougPetrified Forest National Monument. Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Grand Canyon WPA Poster, Recreated by Ranger DougGrand Canyon National Park. Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius 

Note: The following three posters have been recreated from black and white photographs of the original posters.  The colors used by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises are a best guess.  To this day, original posters have not surfaced.  If anyone has information on an original for any of these three, please let Ranger Doug’s Enterprises know!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Recreated by Ranger Doug's Enterprises / Brian MaebiusGreat Smoky Mountains National Park.  Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Yellowstone National Park, Lower Falls. Recreated by Ranger Doug's Enterprises / Brian MaebiuYellowstone National Park, Lower Falls. Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Wind Cave National Park poster.  Recreated by Ranger Doug's Enterprises / Brian MaebiusWind Cave National Park poster.  Recreated by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius

Contemporary Posters

General Grant (Kings Canyon) National Park Poster by Ranger DougGeneral Grant (Kings Canyon) National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprise’s / Brian Maebius
Acadia National Park poster by Ranger DougAcadia National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Badlands National Park poster by Ranger DougBadlands National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Poster by Ranger DougGreat Smoky Mountains National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Saguaro National Park poster by Ranger DougSaguaro National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Rocky Mountain National Park poster by Ranger DougRocky Mountain National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Poster by Ranger DougHawaii Volcanoes National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Glacier Bay National Park poster by Ranger DougGlacier Bay National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius
Mount McKinley (Denali) National Park poster by Ranger DougMount McKinley (Denali) National Park poster by Ranger Doug’s Enterprises / Brian Maebius