CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - While backpacking his way through Europe, Brixton Doyle had a revelation.
“I hadn’t traveled in my own country,” he said.
On his next trip, he drove west to see the natural wonders of states such as New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. He visited Devils Tower. The only other time he’d seen it before was in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
He was star struck.
“It’s the idea that when you see someone who’s a celebrity, your brain is trying to match up the reality with the images of the person,” he said. “When you see Devils Tower it’s just so odd.”
Devils Tower National Monument is one of 401 cultural and geographic treasures guarded by the boundaries of the National Park Service. It’s also one of the many national icons illuminated through a new program that’s reviving the parks’ relationship with American artists like Brixton.
The Creative Action Network and the National Parks Conservation Association are tapping into the past by reintroducing the See America program - an arm of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression that paid artists to create posters for the U.S. Travel Bureau.
The two organizations teamed up and issued a call to artists to create new posters for a crowdsourcing campaign. The new works, which range from photos to paintings and graphic designs, echo the original sentiments of the WPA works while channeling the diversity of 21st century art. The posters are for sale online. For each work sold, 40 percent goes to the artist and the remainder goes to the Creative Action Network, a consortium of artists and organizations that run crowdsourcing campaigns across the country. The works are currently on display at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York.
Doyle, a New York-based artist, is one of the 450 artists who submitted work on behalf of the renewed project. Wyoming parks are the focus of 35 pieces submitted by the artists. Brixton used his memories from his 1987 voyage to Devils Tower as inspiration.
“There’s nothing more dramatic,” he said.
He spun vinyl albums by the band America as he painted. He made sure the house was clean and his kids were asleep.
Doyle used pencil and ink on paper to draw the fire-streaked sky and the pasty gray igneous monolith. He used seven different plates, one for each section of the painting, and then composited them on his computer.
With modern technology, Doyle could have used a computer to compose the whole image. But he wanted to stay as pure as possible to the techniques of the original WPA artists.
“Nowadays you can posterize any image with the click of one button in Photoshop,” he said.
The original See America program began in 1935 alongside WPA public art projects that promoted public health, war propaganda and other federal programs. It launched while carpenters, masons and other laborers with the WPA built the framework for a large chunk of the national parks infrastructure.
While craftsman and workhands sculpted the building blocks of what modern-day travelers know of the parks and other federal recreation areas, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the federal government wanted to stimulate interest in domestic tourism.
They called upon out-of-work artists to create posters that showcased the geysers of Yellowstone National Park, the mountains of Montana and other wonders of the West.
The results of the Depression-era works are the iconic posters now preserved in museums across the nation.
At the time, the posters were hung around cities like theater playbills. Out of the 35,000 original designs created for See America and the other WPA programs, only 2,000 originals still exist.
Much like the nation itself, the aesthetic of the original See America works brewed a melting pot of ideas. They were a mix of Mexican modernism, German Expressionism and American abstract.
With the integration of styles, the highbrow stewards of that era’s art world battled about the significance that See America and other WPA works had in society.
To the modern eye it doesn’t look radical, said Rachel Sailor, assistant professor of art history at the University of Wyoming. But there was a faction of the art world that thought the new style was leading to the demise of all art culture.
“It’s American heritage now, and it’s something that wouldn’t have happened without those programs,” she said. “If you took away those programs, we would be poorer for it.”
- Publicity and propaganda
The confluence of styles not only carved a pathway for new genres in art. It also gave a soapbox to bipartisan politicking during the onset of the New Deal.
The posters functioned as publicity and propaganda, said Stephen Duncombe, associate professor of media and culture at New York University.
With the WPA, the government promised new bridges, new roads and new parks. It was, in essence, an advertisement for the greater role of the federal government.
The posters spawned political tensions between conservatives and pro-New Deal liberals during the depression, Duncombe said.
“Anti-new dealers saw them as ads for a different type of relationship between the federal government and the American people,” he said. “They were right.”
Despite the accomplishments and milestones attained by the nation, the political bickering still exists more than seven decades later.
The Creative Action Network initially wanted to do the new See America project last fall in honor of the National Park Service’s upcoming 100th anniversary. Then Congress sent the federal government into a shutdown. The action network and the conservation association, a lobbyist and park advocate, revised the reason for launching the new See America campaign, said Max Slavkin, CEO of Creative Action Network.
“The shutdown was exactly why we needed to do this project,” he said. “When you see the posters and emotions it’s so visceral why we need this: The parks represent America and Democracy.”
With Congress funding parks at 2008 levels and the continued threat of federal budget cuts looming over park superintendents and rangers, the message coming from the new See America posters is simultaneously the same and different as it was in the 1930s.
The original posters were an ad for an America being built and the current ones are an ad for an America being dismantled, Duncombe said.
“They are the same posters in radically different times,” he said.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com
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