Interview With Doug Leen: The Lost National Parks Travel Posters
Travel Interviews: Eli Ellison learns how the former National Park ranger resurrected a long-forgotten series of Depression-era prints
09.25.09 | 12:06 PM ET
On your next national park vacation, Doug Leen prefers you pass up the rubber tomahawks and purchase a classier souvenir: a replica of a vintage National Park Service poster originally produced by the Federal Art Project (1935-1943), part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
A former seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park, Doug calls himself the “Ranger of the Lost Art.” In the early 1970s he unearthed a tattered promotional poster for the Tetons, the park’s jagged peaks depicted in eye-catching Art Deco-esque graphics and muted colors. Some 20 years later, armed with his original Tetons poster and black and white photos of 13 other WPA park posters, Leen, who is also a dentist, launched Seattle-based Ranger Doug’s Enterprises and began coloring and reproducing the artworks as high-quality color silk-screened prints.
With the National Parks about to enter the spotlight—Ken Burns’ new epic documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea begins Sunday—I asked Leen via email about his discovery, his contemporary posters done in the WPA style and the current state of the National Park Service.
World Hum: Where did you find that first WPA poster of Grand Teton National Park?
Doug Leen: During the fall of 1972 or 1973 in the Tetons, which was my second or third season there. Every year we’d have a cleanup day and every ranger would work on cleaning up after the summer season. My boss called, and we commenced to clear out the old horse stalls at Beaver Creek, which were full of stuff laced with cobwebs.
We were working in the barn when I noticed an old poster destined for the burn pile. It was hanging by a nail up on a crossbeam. I thought it was unique and asked my boss if I could have it for my Jenny Lake park cabin; it later ended up in my house in Seattle when I began studying dentistry. At the time of its “discovery,” there was no huge artistic attraction as only 30 years had elapsed since its publication at the Western Museum Laboratories in Berkeley, California.
What inspired you to travel to the National Park Service archives in West Virginia to search for more posters?
I could sense there was something special about the process of making the Tetons poster. It had clearly been made by hand, and if one park had a poster, perhaps others also did. But this discovery didn’t happen overnight—in fact it was about a 20-year leap with many dead ends. One day my former boss’s wife, Sharlene, executive director of the Grand Teton Natural History Association, called and said she was looking for a poster idea to commemorate the renovation and relocation of the Jenny Lake Museum. Not only did I have a good idea, I had the poster. This was 1993.
I had the poster faithfully reproduced and printed 600 copies. Later, to boost sales, I teamed up with my silk-screen guru and designed a Yellowstone poster using the original WPA fonts and “Old Faithful” as the feature. As the wheels of production turned, I thought if Yellowstone had an original poster tucked away somewhere, it would behoove me to find it otherwise I’d be sitting on a pile of Yellowstone faux posters I couldn’t sell.
I contacted the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and spoke to Tom Durant, who managed the print and photograph collection. He had a story to tell. Tom had just received a call from Grand Canyon asking for the provenance of a Grand Canyon poster that they wanted to republish and explained to me that this sounded like a similar design. I hopped the next flight and met Tom, who gave me a handful of photocopies of WPA posters he had researched ahead of my arrival—13 crude images in black and white. This was the Holy Grail that for 20 years I had been searching for. Then and there, Ranger Doug’s Enterprises was born.
You also design new posters in the WPA style, yet you’re a dentist, not a trained artist. How do you go about creating the new art?
Dentists are indeed artists. We create duplication of human anatomy in the mouth, carving amalgam, sculpting composites and color matching a front tooth in porcelain to match the adjacent tooth on your 9-year-old who ran his skateboard against a brick wall. This is art! I also have a geology degree and see our national parks in a different light, if you will. I sketch the new designs and then work with my computer artist Brian Maebius. Everyone on my staff has unique qualifications and all of us are former seasonal rangers.
All the posters are big sellers in the national park gift shops, and obviously, many of your customers are baby boomers nostalgic for childhood vacations. But that can’t account for all of the sales. When I look at the posters, I’m reminded of the country’s incredible natural beauty and the brilliant concept that is the National Park Service. Do you think younger Americans have that same sense of pride? Or are they just buying cool retro-looking art as a souvenir?
I’ve visited many of our national park bookstores and have quietly watched people interact with our products. After a person makes a choice, I have introduced myself (much to their surprise) and talked with them about what they like about our posters. Indeed, most have been baby boomers that remember the “old days” when their parents piled them into the car and headed for the national parks. Now, they have a car full of their own kids. I would describe our customer base as a bell shaped curve with the younger and older segments at the fringes.
I think as our customers get younger the reasons for purchasing a poster change and this is where we need to keep the artistic quality appealing. We’ve created the Sequoia and Kings Canyon (General Grant) with a 40s-era car for a younger “California” market. It seems to be working. It’s a very subjective thing and it’s no easier to predict the younger generation’s interest in art any more than music. But this will mature and it will be their children that someday again seek this art.
I love the new Sequoia/Kings Canyon posters. Do you have a favorite among your new designs? Any favorite among the original posters?
These posters are like children in a big family—you love them all but they’re all unique. As for the new designs, I’d have to vote for Rocky Mountain. It has the dynamic east face of Long’s Peak (the “Diamond”) which I’ve climbed, an historic cabin built by the Park Service and great composition and colors. Hawaii is also right up there—and the volcano actually re-erupted after 75 years of dormancy soon after our publication—Pele the Fire Goddess was indeed happy with our design!
Grand Teton has to be my overall favorite though—it was the first in the series, and artistically the most stylized, yet has only four colors. Plus the fact that its discovery changed my life and career.
A percentage of your sales goes toward your foundation, which donates money to help preserve historic WPA-CCC art and structures within the parks. When Ken Burns’ The National Parks documentary airs on PBS, I think we’re going to see a renewed interest in the history of the parks. I can only hope the boys in Washington are watching too, and someday soon the parks will receive the funding they desperately need. Do you think there’s a chance?
Everyone loves our National Parks. This is truly an American idea that has taken hold everywhere on our planet. We have a lot to be proud of. Yet our parks have been sadly neglected and frightfully overused. It is sad to see campgrounds close simply because they cannot be maintained. There is an issue here larger than funding, though. It takes more than money to successfully manage our parks. Where are the CCC workers of today or the summer youth programs?
I volunteered to build a summit hut at the 10,000-foot level of Mt. Rainier with the Boy Scouts in the early 1960s, which were the best two summers of my life. The recent Student Conservation Association’s participation in the Mount Rainier Recovery Initiative is a sterling example of how this could work park-wide. Recent administrations have “outsourced” many park services. The Jenny Lake Campground where I used to walk and meet campers is now run by concession. This is a great loss for the public.
We now have “new boys” in Washington with an excellent choice of director in Jon Jarvis. Hopefully we will see some top-down leadership from a bottom-up ranger. Beginning with the Nixon administration, many within the NPS hierarchy came from outside our National Park system—a big mistake in my opinion. Hopefully this new administration will once again re-ignite park patriotism.