In 1938, the first Works Progress Administration poster promoting a national park emerged from the silkscreen press. The stylized peaks of Grand Teton National Park invited Americans to experience “all day hikes, nature walks, and campfire programs.” And, as part of the massive federal employment initiative, the poster series put artists to work for a good cause.
The WPA posters’ iconic look and timeless mission inspired Max Slavkin and Aaron Perry-Zucker to reinvent not just the national park poster series, but also the concept behind the WPA itself. “The idea of an organizing force putting artists to work for the public good really stuck with me,” says Perry-Zucker, who had discovered the WPA posters while studying the arts in high school.
As the co-founders of Creative Action Network (CAN), the two childhood friends blended Perry-Zucker’s experience successfully crowdsourcing art for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and Slavkin’s skills as a creative organizer to build a modern-day WPA art project. Their goal: Harness the talents of a community of designers and work with nonprofit partners to tell important stories. “We’re passionate about the power of creative communities and inspired by the possibilities when people work to create together,” Slavkin says. "The results are more powerful than what any one individual can create on their own.”
In 2014, CAN partnered with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) to launch “See America,” a dream project that revives the legacy of the New Deal by inviting artists and designers from all 50 states to create a new collection of posters celebrating U.S. landmarks. As new parks, like Castle Mountains National Monument, are established, the network recruits more artists to create new works.
Slavkin and Perry-Zucker recently published a book, See America: A Celebration of Our National Parks and Treasured Sites, containing many of the “See America” posters. For their efforts, they won the NPCA’s 2016 Robin W. Winks Award for enhancing public understanding of the National Park System.
This dynamic duo is only getting started. National Geographic Adventure chatted with Perry-Zucker, 29, and Slavkin, 28, to learn more about their efforts to grow CAN into an influential cultural institution.
What’s the significance of national parks in your life?
Slavkin: I love the outdoors, hiking, and camping. But even more, I love what the national parks represent. I love how they capture the best of what democracy can be when we come together as a country to make something beautiful for all of us. As someone who cares deeply about a range of issues from climate change to criminal justice reform, I find a hundred years of national parks deeply inspiring for what’s possible.
What do you hope the posters will do?
Perry-Zucker: We hope that the “See America” project and the images that we’re generating will continue to do what many generations of artistic and conservation collaborations have done—encourage a new generation to embrace the parks and the job of creating new parks.
Slavkin: I hope the act of making the posters for the parks will engage artists around the country in conservation in ways they never were before. So many of our artists didn’t identify as park advocates before they submitted a poster, but now they do. I hope the posters will do what they say and inspire a new generation to get out and “see America.” And I hope that the posters will continue the American tradition of art and activism inspiring each other, and that by celebrating the last hundred years of our parks through art, we’ll help inspire another hundred years of conservation.
What kind of social or cultural change do you hope the “See America” series inspires?
Perry-Zucker: Young people wearing “See America” T-shirts are walking billboards for the parks. And we’re helping organizations like NPCA speak to supporters on an emotional level.
Slavkin: CAN’s mission is “art with purpose.” We believe deeply that we, along with our artists, are creating change. We’re creating change in the hearts of the artists who have donated their time and talent to express their love for parks. And we’re creating change in the minds of millions who see our artists’ work, just as the original “See America” posters helped craft our national identity and imagination.
Perry-Zucker: I like to think that our combination of the creative process with grassroots organizing techniques has created a very collaborative, not competitive, process. This, along with embracing the Internet’s ability to connect people in different places to a common mission, has allowed us to grow and organize creative communities on a large scale.
Why do you rely on crowdsourcing?
Perry-Zucker: We have found that it is the best way to be the most inclusive. Anyone can contribute a design, and our collection reflects a broad range of backgrounds, artistic approaches, and levels of skill. Everyone is on even footing, and the goal is to build a large and diverse collection of work that tells the same story about loving the parks.
What’s your biggest accomplishment?
Perry-Zucker: Lately, the combination of the release of our See America book and winning the Robin W. Winks Award have felt like great milestones [indicating] that we’re headed in the right direction. I spent over a year designing the new book and had a great time learning even more about each of the 75 locations included. Over the last few months since the book’s release I have gotten a lot of great feedback and enjoyed seeing it making its way in the world. And the award from NPCA was a huge honor. Past awardees include Ted Turner, Ken Burns, and Nat Geo! We’re not often honored at fancy D.C. gala events and told how great we are, so that was fun.
Why did art seem like a good method to you for spreading the message of conservation?
Slavkin: Growing up as a musician and surrounded by the arts, I was aware of the unique capability of art to change our hearts and minds in a way nothing else can. I also entered the job market at a time when the Internet was this exciting new place where inexperienced young people like me could do more than traditional routes offered. I knew I wanted to lean into that opportunity. Lastly, I’m friends with Aaron. He’s always been a designer, a supertalented one at that, and working with him on so many things pulled me into that world.
Making a living as an artist, or even by helping artists, is notoriously tough. Did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?
Slavkin: There have been plenty of scary moments along the way about whether we’d make it at all. Starting a business is hard. Starting one around art and causes is even harder, and there have been lots of moments over the years where we’ve questioned whether or not it’ll work, whether or not we’ll be able to make it sustainable. We started CAN from nothing, but we’ve had some incredible advisers and partners along the way to help us get here.
Who or what inspires you to keep going, even when you hit obstacles?
Perry-Zucker: Working with our community of artists and helping to further their careers and get their work out into the world. Helping our artists make an impact with their work by being a part of a collective effort.
Slavkin: Our artists inspire me every day with their talent and passion. The advocates and activists we work with at organizations like NPCA who work all day, every day, to make our shared aspirations real inspire me by turning art into action.
Perry-Zucker: Flight, for sure.
Slavkin: I want to come up with something clever here, but I feel like the standard answer is the best—I’d want to fly. How awesome would that be?