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Feb. 26, 2024

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Seattle adventurer uncovers hidden history of national park posters

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Doug Leen, a retired Seattle dentist, maintains a warehouse in Fremont for Ranger Doug Enterprises, on Nov. 1, 2022, in Seattle. A business that sells prints of the vintage national park posters he rescued from archival obscurity.
Doug Leen, a retired Seattle dentist, maintains a warehouse in Fremont for Ranger Doug Enterprises, on Nov. 1, 2022, in Seattle. A business that sells prints of the vintage national park posters he rescued from archival obscurity. (Kevin Clark/The Seattle Times/TNS) (Photos by Kevin Clark/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — In 1971, when Doug Leen was a Grand Teton National Park ranger in his early 20s, his boss assigned him to clean out a barn, its contents destined for the dump. A silk-screen print on stiff cardboard caught his eye. Above the peaks of the Grand Tetons, “MEET THE RANGER NATURALIST AT JENNY LAKE MUSEUM” was printed on the poster in bold, green and purple type.

Despite stains marring the poster, Leen could see its artistry. He took it back to his cabin.

A half-century later, that encounter has become the life’s work of this former Seattle dentist turned Alaskan frontiersman. His goal: uncover the forgotten history of national park poster art created by designers and printers working for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.

Decades of archival sleuthing, gallery auctions, junk store reconnaissance and negotiations with private collectors have culminated in Leen’s new book, “Ranger of the Lost Art: Rediscovering the WPA Poster Art of Our National Parks.”

At the Nickerson Street warehouse where he runs Ranger Doug’s Enterprises, which sells reproductions of WPA poster art and prints of new designs in the WPA style, Leen signed books at the warehouse and at Secret Garden Books in Ballard last week.

“My goal is to put these people back in their historical place and give them credit for this wonderful artwork,” Leen said.

A winding journey

Born in Bellingham, Leen was an avid Cascades climber who put up routes with legendary Washington alpinist Fred Beckey. He spent several summers in the Tetons on break from his geology studies at the University of Washington, and after graduation, a friend tipped him off to a seasonal ranger job at Grand Teton National Park. It was heaven for a 20-something mountain man who could climb and backcountry ski to his heart’s content while working in one of the world’s most stunning alpine settings.

“I got in at the very last of the golden age of the Tetons,” Leen said.

He also had a thirst for park history and a mind for design.

“Almost the second I held this in my hand for the first time, I realized there was a whole big story,” Leen said of the poster, which he tacked to the wall of a cabin he built himself. “Every time I looked at the poster from 1971 onward, I knew I could reproduce this thing.”

But life intervened. After several years of seasonal ranger work, he sought a more stable career and enrolled in dental school.

For 20 years, he fixed teeth in Pike Place Market, but Leen tired of city life. In 1999, he sold the business and began his next adventure: restoring a vintage tugboat, the Kathadin, and practicing dentistry in remote Alaskan villages.

Today, Leen splits his time between a homestead on Kupreanof Island in southeast Alaska, the Jackson Hole cabin and a winter home in Tucson, Ariz. But these classic parks posters have been a through line across Leen’s globe-trotting life.

On the hunt

In 1992, Sharlene Milligan, executive director of the Grand Teton Bookstore, called up the Seattle dentist and asked if he had ideas for a poster. She knew Leen had served as a Jenny Lake ranger in his youth — her husband had been Leen’s boss.

Leen thought back to the poster on his cabin wall and offered to make a silk-screen reproduction.

That was his first foray into replication. With the help of designer Brian Maebius, Leen would go on to produce new posters in the vintage style for some 50 national parks.

But what about the historical artifact?

Two years after resurrecting the Teton poster for Milligan, Leen visited the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. They had received an inquiry about the origin of a print located at the Grand Canyon. The style matched the one in Leen’s cabin. This clue was evidence that the Teton poster was not a one-off.

Leen’s name soon got passed around in the insular world of national park memorabilia. When a collector located a print, often they called Leen.

“The posters find me,” he said. “I’ve never walked into a junk store looking for these and found one.”

Others have. A collector found nine original posters at an antique store in Los Angeles and bought them for $70 each after consulting with Leen about their provenance. At the time, Leen was staff dentist for the U.S. Antarctic Mission at McMurdo Station, and he pleaded from the end of the world that if they were sold at auction, to sell them as a single lot so they would be easier to keep track of.

Leen’s request was ignored. Swann Auction Gallery in New York sold several in February 2006. A Grand Canyon original fetched $9,000 for a poster that cost 12 cents to make. When Leen tracked down a Yosemite original in the hands of a Baltimore physician, it appraised for $22,000.

Mystery revealed

In 2014, the Department of the Interior Museum mounted an exhibit of the known WPA posters and the new designs by Leen and Maebius.

“The fact that these were almost lost and brought back to the public eye, largely due to Doug’s efforts, is an impressive feat, and it’s really fortunate that these weren’t lost to time,” said museum registrar Jason Jurgena. “The WPA posters have a unique, recognizable look. It’s something that parks today are excited about being a part of, even if it’s not part of the original series.”

Researchers eventually uncovered the backstory.

In 1934, the National Park Service authorized a poster program in collaboration with the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which put unemployed artists to work as part of the New Deal. At the time, C. Don Powell was an artist working on a road crew in Berkeley, Calif. He got the job, trading his pick and shovel for pen and ink.

He designed posters for 14 national parks using bold Bauhaus fonts and strong images reminiscent of the Soviet Realist style then popular in graphic design. Printer Dale Miller silk-screened roughly 100 copies each during the program’s production period from 1938 to 1941. They were distributed to national parks and local chambers of commerce with the goal of encouraging more domestic tourism during the Depression.

But poster art, especially silk-screening, is ephemeral. Once the program shut down during World War II, the posters vanished. Of the 1,400 prints made over three-quarters of a century ago, only 40 have turned up, representing 12 national parks. Between the Library of Congress, National Park Service archives and the Department of Interior Museum, 33 prints are in the public domain. Six are in private collections and one’s whereabouts are unknown.