Fans of America’s national parks love the vintage posters that inspired countless families to make travel and exploration a way of life. A new exhibition at the Department of the Interior, “POSTERity: WPA’s Art Legacy and America’s Public Lands,” honors pre-World War II posters that almost vanished forever. The exhibition also explores the influence of these posters on generations of designers—and if you look closely at the objects on display, there’s a Torpedo Factory connection.
The posters themselves are rich in history. From 1938 to 1941, the National Park Service employed artists in Berkeley, California, through the Works Progress Administration to produce silkscreened posters to promote various parks. Their 14 designs were well received, but production ended with the outbreak of World War II, and the posters were lost until the early 1970s.
Around 40 of these posters have since resurfaced in government archives or private collections. The “POSTERity” exhibition features those 14 designs—including six on the exceedingly rare original posters, reunited for the first time—as well as 25 vivid new WPA-inspired screen-printed designs by artists Doug Leen and Brian Maebius of Ranger Doug Enterprises, who also painstakingly recreated the original designs.
As Interior Museum curator Tracy Baetz prepared for this exhibition, she resolved to learn all she could about serigraphy, or screen printing. Fortunately, she had worked at the Torpedo Factory as Marketing Manager in late 2012 and early 2013, so she knew exactly where to begin. She returned for a visit last August during the Art Material Market, a terrific, first-of-its-kind event where artists sold and swapped their unwanted items, and found treasures fit for a museum.
“While visitors to the ‘POSTERity’ exhibition will certainly enjoy the artistry and history of these works, I also wanted to convey an understanding and appreciation of the complexity of the serigraph process,” Baetz says. “I was able to pick up a few of the tools that help me illustrate this storyline.”
In addition, Baetz enjoyed another Torpedo Factory benefit: the opportunity to learn from our incredible community of expert printmakers. As a result, she can now discuss these fascinating WPA posters even more knowledgeably when she fields questions from Interior Museum visitors.
“I received a tutorial from artist Constance Grace in Printmakers, Inc.,” she explains. “She was incredibly helpful in explaining everything in lay terms and answering my many questions. What a great ambassador for printmaking!”
See “POSTERity: WPA’s Art Legacy and America’s Public Lands” through spring 2015 at the Interior Museum, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street, Washington, D.C. The museum is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except federal holidays; photo I.D. and security screening required for access to the federal building. Learn more at www.doi.gov/interiormuseum.