Print(s) of the Week: WPA National Park Posters

In my search for cool prints worth sharing, I had to sift through mounds of misleading website rubble to find these nuggets of vintage design. Perhaps what makes them most interesting is that they weren’t created by struggling artists aspiring to visually express their profound ideas; instead, they were made by the what is arguably the King of Unimagination (the opposite of imagination, right?), the federal government. Oh, and did I mention that my investigation may have also unearthed the father of commercial screen-printing from his digital burial grounds? [“Um, no, actually that was definitely the first time you mentioned it.”]

The story goes a little sump’n like this:

It was the early 1930’s in the United States and the country was economically donezo. In an attempt to reinvigorate the nation and stave off nascent debt threats breathing down his neck, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt triumphantly engineered the ultimate blueprint for economic improvement (save your arguments re: the merit of this statement for someone whose debate skills can be drawn from proper historical knowledge, please). The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest agency under the New Deal, and one of its more significant creations was the Federal Arts Project (FAP) whereby it printed nearly 35,000 different designs – of which, only 2,000 remain and are held by the Library of Congress. The idea basically served as a marketing ploy to attract citizens to pursue things like education, health, travel, and theater.

Digging a little deeper, I actually found an old archived video clip of an interview with this man (Anthony Velonis) who was tasked with spearheading the entire silkscreening process on behalf of the WPA – in the the footage talks about how he is

the person responsible for coining the popular term “screen-printing”, as it is commonly used now. His printing methods, from what I can gather, are what led to the inception of commercial screen-printing. He also discusses how exciting it was to be at the forefront of the “boom in American culture,” as he refers to it. Unfortunately, I was unable to convert the file for your viewing pleasure but if you have RealPlayer you can download it here. This is a picture of him actually layering multiple black and white negatives before transposing the image for the final print. Posters nowadays usually rely on digital techniques which is why these posters are so cool.

Below are some of my favorites:

Sequoia National Park

As it turns out, a fellow explorer who also happens to be from Seattle has made it his mission to find the originals and as a result, has an amazing collection. He refers to himself as Ranger Doug and sells the posters here. He has much more information about the FAP, which in its prime, was by far the single largest employer of artists hiring people nationwide. Evidently Ol’ F.D.R. had something figured out – that’s probably why he remains the only president ever elected for three terms.

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One response to “Print(s) of the Week: WPA National Park Posters

  1. Two of your posted posters, Mt. McKinley and Sequoia are in fact my contemporary designs inspired by the WPA originals– Yellowstone in this case. Only 14 original NPS designs were created between 1938-1941 (and two See America park prints making 16 total parks). I restored all original prints before creating similar designs ‘in the style of the WPA’ for those parks that didn’t subscribe to the original 1938 Federal Poster Project.

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