NPCA Teams Up with Creative Action Network to Reimagine FDR’s “See America” Campaign.
The relationship between artists and our national parks goes back to the very beginning, when Alfred Bierstadt and Thomas Moran put oil to sprawling canvases and introduced Americans to Yosemite and Yellowstone. Over the years, artists have helped persuade our leaders to set aside these special places and inspired millions of visitors to see them with their own eyes. One chapter that left a lasting impression was the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt launched the “See America” campaign. The goal was to put artists to work during the Great Depression, to remind Americans of the marvels their country had to offer, and encourage people to seek them out. Ninety years later, an arts and advocacy organization in San Francisco is launching a “See America” campaign for the 21st century.
“We started the Creative Action Network a few years ago, inspired by the research we’d done around the New Deal Arts Project,” says Max Slavkin, one of the organization’s co-founders. “We loved the idea that the government put artists to work for important causes, to create content for federal agencies that had important information to share. And the work they generated lives on, nearly 100 years later.”
The Creative Action Network (CAN) began in 2008 with “Design for Obama,” which sought to engage artists after the iconic Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster went viral. “The idea was to create a space for all the other artists who were fired up about the candidate, but who weren’t famous street artists with the support and resources to get their work into the public eye,” says Slavkin. “We wanted to help those artists contribute to the campaign, not by phone banking or campaigning or traditional grassroots activities but by using their skills as artists.” The effort took off, generating hundreds of works of art and resulting in a compilation of images bound into a book co-authored by famed director Spike Lee.
When it was over, several of the artists asked, “What’s next?” at which point Slavkin and CAN co-founder Aaron Perry-Zucker started to take the project more seriously. The next campaign focused on gun violence just as the issue was gaining widespread attention as a result of the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut, and the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Images from that campaign appeared all over Facebook, and an illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr. wearing a hoodie went viral after the Martin verdict was announced.
The group then used its crowd-sourcing muscle to generate new covers for classic books now in the public domain, like Don Quixote, Dracula, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which made a big splash on Pinterest. In the summer of 2013, Slavkin’s team returned to their roots by revisiting the iconic “See America” campaign, seeking out NPCA as a partner in the process.
“I love the idea of making conservation patriotic, American,” says Slavkin. “It’s not a ‘hippy dippy’ activity or some luxury to pursue when we have more time and money—it’s a core part of our identity as a country. That’s what those posters represent. That simple graphic style has become popular again, and the time feels right to revive the idea of the environment and parks as hip and cool and patriotic and no longer a fringe political issue.”
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In the era of smartphones and Facebook, the idea of printing posters may seem outdated. But there’s something to be said for the simplicity of a single image and a few words—it doesn’t seem to matter if the product is crafted on computer software and spread on social-networking sites or cooked up on a canvas and plastered to a wall.
The reincarnation of “See America” officially kicks off at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, on January 10, 2014, with an exhibit that will remain on display through the summer. CAN is hoping to exhibit posters at events in every state throughout 2014; plans for Los Angeles and San Francisco are already under way.
Want to get involved? If you’re an artist, produce a poster of your own and upload it to the Creative Action Network site—you’ll receive 40 percent of the sales generated by the posters and related products. Can’t draw a square to save your life? Purchase items on CAN’s website to support artists and show off your love of the parks, or just share some of your favorite images on Facebook, Pinterest, or other social-networking sites. Learn more at seeamericaproject.com.
About the author
Scott Kirkwood Former editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine