Fifty-Nine Parks Reimagines WPA Posters of the 1930s
In 1872, the United States set aside the vast stretch of Wyoming that extended into Montana and Idaho known as Yellowstone, creating the country’s first national park. This act of preservation was the first of its kind in the world, yet it wasn’t until 1916 that then United States president Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. At that point, the country already had fourteen national parks, but there were no set guidelines on who ran them. Wilson’s bill stated the goal of the National Park Service as being,”to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
It’s an interesting concept, this idea of a national park — at one point in time the entirety of North America was as Yellowstone is today, but even one hundred years ago we thought to protect it, not from intruders or outside sources, but from within — we were protecting our land from our own meddling.
As part of the Works Progress Administration of 1935, unemployed artists were paid to create promotional posters for the parks, advertisements to entice the public to visit their natural wonders. Soon, the parks became summer vacations. Weekend getaways. Trips for camping, hiking, fishing, and family. That collection of posters are now held in the Library of Congress, a piece of American history honoring another. It’s this sense of history and preservation that attracted designer and curator JP Boneyard to start the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series.
With his poster event the National Poster Retrospecticus, Boneyard shares the history and craft of the screenprinted poster by touring his collection of over 400 hand-printed posters across the globe and it’s through this venture that Boneyard produces the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series, drawing inspiration from the WPA posters of the 1930s that first brought the national parks to the attention of the public and he’s hoping that once again, through handcrafted posters the American public will once again remember the joy and beauty of their natural wonders.
National Poster Retrospecticus tour poster by Daniel Danger
CJ: My family did road trips each summer when I was a kid – hitting a lot of the national parks and picking up the official sticker for each to place on our van. This project immediately took me back to those moments on the road, the smell of wood and hot rock. Those stickers.
With 2016 being the centennial of the National Park Service, now is the perfect time to reintroduce the parks. They are a beautiful yet often overlooked part of our culture. With running The National Poster Retrospecticus you are looking at the history and evolution of the screenprinted poster, and now you’ve added another project of history and evolution to your plate. What prompted you to take on this series?
JPB: I love that story! And those stickers! Such a cool idea.
Starting with The NPR (The National Poster Retrospecticus) is an important connection to make. The NPR combines just about all of the things I love. It’s design, music, community minded-events, web development, posters, printmaking, travel, adventure, friends, and education. The only thing it’s missing is probably the National Parks!
I’ve been wanting to curate and produce a poster series through The NPR for a while now. The network of artists and friends is already there. The NPR has a platform to display the work and has a built in audience for it. This is really one of those projects where a person just combines all of the things they love into one fun idea or event and hopes it translates well. This is totally it for me!
Was there any discussion early on about involving the National Park Service? The Fifty-Nine Parks series is beautifully branded in its own unique way, but was there a moment where you considered trying to get approval to use the official NPS arrowhead logo in the design?
There was a lot of discussion around that idea. My default for team-ups is usually to demonstrate that an idea is solid, get a decent amount of traction and then pitch it to the venue, band, artist or in this case, an agency of the US Federal Government. What that allows us to do is to move swiftly early on, dial in our vision / process and then make an effort to get the heavy hitters on board. There are a ton of other logistics involved but that’s the simplified version!
Did you contact the NPS to see if they’d be involved? Are they?
The National Park Service isn’t involved with the creation of the Fifty-Nine Parks posters. I’d love to team up them in some capacity once the series is up to full speed. I imagine they get approached by so many people with ideas like this. I feel like we’d increase our chances of being taken seriously if we can demonstrate that this is a fun idea that already works. If it’s half baked, or if there isn’t much of a following I’m not sure it’d be in their interest to invest any time in something like this. I could be wrong. I just want to make sure there’s nothing left to the imagination if and when that conversation gets started.
‘Zion National Park’ (Open Edition Version) by Dan McCarthy
You credit a lot talented illustrators, printmakers, and art directors with getting Fifty-Nine Parks going. What were those conversations like? What were your biggest concerns?
Most friends and family would know me as someone who doesn’t ask for help very often. I’ve been setting up shows and doing design work for 16 years at this point. Now that I’m a little older I really see the value in getting feedback from people I admire and trust. Their time and thoughts are something I value and never forget. Gratitude is so important. Some of the conversations came about organically or folks simply called to say “I heard you’re kicking off a new series soon, here’s what I learned from my own experiences”. When friends start to talk shop or offer up advice I listen. I respect the heck out of them and admire their work and insight!
The conversations were as pragmatic as they were hopelessly ambitious. I always prefer for folks to give it to me straight. I like them to poke holes in the ideas and interrogate the premise. My biggest concerns are centered around doing things to the best of my abilities. That means doing right by the artists and delivering on what we commit to. There’s always room for refinement or readjusting the scope, I just didn’t want to over promise anything too soon or let anyone down. These conversations are always great because they help keep my enthusiasm in check. Am I reaching too far? Not far enough? Do other people see some sliver of value in whatever it is I’m so stoked on? If so we’re probably headed in a good direction.
The challenges come from needing my full attention on this project and The NPR. It’s the only way I picture this being done well and true to the original vision. Increasing my bandwidth meant that I had to leave my full time design job and invest what ever I had saved into this project. Even though most responsibility and accountability rests with me, I don’t feel like I’m totally going it alone. The last two months my girlfriend (Kristen Mazzaferro) has been helping run the series and The NPR part-time which has been huge (and it’s really sweet to work together!). We also have the love, support and enthusiasm of so many talented friends and family members behind us. That stuff makes all of the difference!
You left your full-time design job to devote all of your time to Fifty-Nine Parks? Is it a one-man-show or do you have partners?
Right now it’s just myself and Kristen. I’m full time on this project and The NPR and Kristen is part time. She makes awesome jewelry and does freelance design work too!
Fifty-Nine Parks Logo designed by Curtis Jinkins
‘Olympic National Park’ (Detail) by Daniel Danger
The first national park, Yellowstone, was marked as such in 1872. Yellowstone is the biggest in terms of legacy and impact. How did you go about choosing the artist for that park? How concerned were you with having a consistent look to the posters? Did you have artists in mind for specific parks?
We’ve been hyper-focused on what level consistency we’d like between each poster. If this is a series then it has to be unified in some way. Finding that right balance took over a month of experimentation with templates, branding and curating the artists within the series. My initial concern was putting too much of our branding on the poster. Friends had to convince me to not exclude the actual park names on the posters at one point. I just wanted the artist’s work to shine and the beauty of the park to be unobscured. If things started to feel too much like a NASCAR event (sponsorship on everything) then it felt like we weren’t doing the parks or the artists any justice. Since this series is in some way a call to action to visit the parks, it felt like including the name helped us accomplish that.
I feel like we’ve struck a good balance by having a flexible but consistent poster template. The beautiful typeface was custom designed for this series by Riley Cran. Riley’s typeface and a small 59PS badge (featuring elements of the larger brand designed by Curtis Jinkins) are the the only design elements placed on every poster. The dimensions of the poster, the orientation and the border are the other common threads between each poster. Ultimately it felt like that’s all we needed.
Each park is beautiful in it’s own way. Why shouldn’t the aesthetic of each print be celebrated in the same way? My original thought was to just stick to the more traditional illustrators who are less stylistic and more representative of nature. I’m happy we’ve decided to embrace the eclectic though. There’s going to be enough overlap to keep the series unified. That way when a Tom Whalen poster looks way different than a Dan McCarthy poster it’ll still feel at home within the series.
When it came to pairing up artists with each park some people came to mind immediately. Other parks were picked by artists who had a personal connection with them. That connection is something that was important to pay attention to. We all tend to do better work when we’re stoked on the material or have a personal connection to it. Plus I just love hearing stories some of the artists have about each park!
Yellowstone National Park, Ranger Naturalist Service | by the Works Project Administration, 1938
When you are looking to show the epic nature of a park that spans thousands of miles on a 18” x 24” piece of paper, where do you start? Are you handing the job over the artists and letting them figure that out, or were you guiding them? Were you talking to each artist about connections they might have to a specific park?
It’s not easy. We typically start off with a conversation about what gets an artist excited about their particular park. We also talk about any connections they may have and see where that takes us. We talk about things like which features they want to highlight. Is it day time? Is it winter? What’s unique about this particular park? Which location do we want to put on center stage? From there we narrow in on a composition via thumbnail sketches.
Our bias towards portrait orientation with posters doesn’t do us any favors here. Panoramic scenes in landscape orientation may have helped us capture the parks as we experience them in person. When I think of posters (and specifically travel posters) I think of a well framed composition in portrait mode. Almost all of the WPA (Works Project Administration) posters and so many of the beautiful travel posters from that era shared this orientation. We have a few ideas in mind for the future on how to meet in the middle though!
‘Grand Teton National Park’ (Open Edition) by Eric Nyffeler
‘Grand Teton National Park’ (Open Edition) by Eric Nyffeler
‘Grand Teton National Park’ (detail) by Eric Nyffeler
The first print released in the series was Grand Teton National Park. In terms of a timeline, it was first founded in 1929 (later expanded in 1950.) The second release was Dan McCarthy’s Zion National Park poster, a park founded in 1919. Is there significance to the order the prints?
I’ll be honest: there’s a total disregard for the parks timeline here. A number of variables had to be taken into account though. Artist bandwidth and availability, and some balance between park name recognition and the parks we’re most stoked on. Those are things we have to consider when the series is self-funded and each release essentially kickstarts a future release. Older but lesser known parks may be more likely to sit on the shelf for longer. That would mean we’d have trouble funding the next poster in the series. At this point in the project’s infancy that may be a tough one to recover from.
It’s all a balance and a bit of strategy in terms of which cards to play and when to play them. It’s funny to think that way because it’s not usually how I approach things — I’m usually all in and I just care about the execution and integrity of the idea. I don’t usually sweat making back what I put in — I just focus on the experience and doing something fun. That approach isn’t as sustainable on a project this massive and now that it’s what I devote all of my time to. It’s all a practice of keeping some of that enthusiasm in check and making mindful decisions.
Yeah, that’s a good point. If the project is going to fund itself it you have to think about differently and it can’t be 100% accurate to a linear history.
‘Biscayne National Park’ by Justin Santora
You’re doing something unique within the world of posters by having all of the prints be an open edition and also offering them wholesale to shops. Was the decision to have the prints be readily available made early on?
That was definitely a decision made early on. All of the shows and events I’ve ever set up have been all ages and open to the public (unless brought in to do a private event for a specific group). I don’t like the idea of being exclusive in life — especially with a series like this. The population of parks enthusiasts greatly outnumbers the population of poster fans. I pictured anyone who missed that window of 100 limited prints being so bummed out. We’re talking about parks that mean so much to people. Glacier National Park is that place for me. I literally consider it to be heaven on earth. If there’s an afterlife I’d like to think it’s a chill spot by a place just like Avalanche Lake and everyone’s invited.
Now picture a parks enthusiast who has a similar feeling about a park. If they missed out on a print release and don’t quite understand how the poster world works that’s such a bummer. Especially if the print really speaks to them. All of that considered we realize that collectability is still a fun aspect of posters and printmaking. We wanted to include some element of collectability so that’s why select parks will receive a larger, limited edition print. Hopefully that means there’s something for everyone!
Fifty-Nine Parks 1″ Pins
What’s the timeline for the full series of 59 prints? When they’ve all been released, will Fifty-Nine Parks be considered a finished product? Will you use the site and brand for future projects relating to national parks?
Right now we’re slated to release two prints a month. Once we get up to speed I’d like to increase that number substantially. I’d love to see this series tour on it’s own with all 59 parks represented. That feels achievable by late 2017.
Will you take on the national monuments as well?
We have all kinds of fun ideas on the table to expand the series. We’re taking it one step at a time but we’re so stoked for the potential we see for the series! Please stay tuned, y’all!
On Wednesday March 9, 2016 Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series will release its poster for Florida’s Biscayne National Park, which has been beautifully highlighted by Chicago based illustration Justin Santora.
‘Biscayne National Park’ by Justin Santora
Santora’s Biscayne National Park will be an open edition screenprint available in the Fifty-Nine Parks Shop on March 9th at 12PM CST.
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