Doug Leen’s art talk will focus on WPA-era National Park posters
August 25, 2015
Two days before the Kimball Art Center shuts down the "Posterity and Parks" exhibit at the Garage Gallery, former National Park ranger Doug Leen will give a free art talk.
Leen, who now makes his living as a dentist, will talk about WPA-era silk-screened National Park posters that were made during the Great Depression.
The talk will be held at the Kimball Art Center, 638 Park Ave., on Friday, Aug. 28, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Leen first learned of these posters’ existence when he was a ranger at Jenny Lake.
"I found the first one in 1973," Leen said during a phone call to The Park Record from a freeway in Northern California. "It was a screen print on a piece of board and the park was going to burn it, so I just thumbtacked it to my wall. Then I realized there could be others."
After some heavy searching, Leen came up empty handed.
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"Then 20 years later, my boss’ wife called me looking for a poster idea for the Jenny Lake Museum," Leen said. "I told her that not only do I have an idea, but I have an original poster.
After Leen sent her a copy, she gave him more ideas of where to search around for others.
A few months later, Leen found 13 black-and-white photographs of the whole original poster series in a drawer at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Among these photos was the Jenny Lake poster in its original form.
"I processed the negatives and blew the photos up to poster size," he said. ‘They were poor quality, because these were taken by a camera before World War II.
"The sad thing was after World War II started, the WPA poster division was eradicated and gone within a month," Leen said. "The posters were either thrown out or burned or who knows what."
However, one of the 42 posters that survived contained information about why the posters were made in the first place.
"They weren’t made as souvenirs, but as ways to encourage people to visit National Parks during the Depression," Leen said. "They were given out to local communities’ chambers of commerce."
Leen decided to create replicas of these posters using his original find as a template for the photographs and set off to look for other originals to restore with new silk-screens.
"Since the photos were black and white, we didn’t know what colors the WPA used so we, including the artists that I contacted, made a lot of guesses," he said. "I mixed the inks myself and would dip my finger in finger paints and came up with old period brochures and a painting of Mount Rainier that I have from the 1930s as a guide."
It took five years and $150,000 to build all of the screens for the restoration process, and as more originals turned up, Leen found his colors weren’t that far off the mark.
"We found we were right on in some cases, which was very serendipitous," he said. "Then there were some that I completely missed. So, as they started trickling in, I corrected the colors on the screens."
Through more research, Leen found there were 14 original posters made by the WPA.
"When we finished recreating these originals, other parks came to me and asked if I could make posters for their parks," he said. "I just started making posters and am up to 45 parks right now."
Leen will bring five original posters to the Kimball Art Center when he gives his presentation.
"These posters just came out of a 14-month Department of the Interior exhibit in Washington, D.C.," he said. "So, this will be an opportunity for people to see these five posters in one lump.
"They are in pristine condition and I’m taking them around the country," Leen said. "My little road tour will end in a year, during the National Parks Centennial, and when my tour wraps up, I will donate my posters to the National Park Service."
Leen has seen a rise in demand for the originals and even the replicas.
During a 2005 auction, some of these posters sold between $2,000 and $10,000 each, depending on the park and the condition the posters were in.
These days, when people do a Google search for "WPA National Parks posters" they will find more than 100,000 hits, according to Leen.
"As more turn up, the momentum builds," Leen said. "In fact, some of the originals were even stolen from an artist by a person who passed himself off as myself and I’m in the process of locating these."
The Kimball Art Center, 638 Park Ave., will present a free art talk with Doug Leen, who will discuss the WPA National Park Poster Project. The talk, which will be held on Friday, Aug. 28, at 6:30 p.m., coincides with the exhibit that is currently on display at the KAC’s Garage Gallery through Aug. 30. For more information, visit http://www.kimballartcenter.org.
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