The National Park Service Isn’t Just Parks! (USA)

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, the USPS issued a sheet of 16 stamps, each associated with a particular NPS location—parks, seashores, and even an aquatic garden. I confess, my preconceived notion of another series of park photographs caused me to give the sheet just a cursory look. Big mistake!

This year, ordering stamps for my mailing needs, I included the NPS sheet in my order. Examining the stamps, three years after issue, I was struck by the Bandelier National Monument stamp. “What an unusual photograph,” I thought, “such unusual colors.” Then, looking closer and reading the back of the sheet, I discovered the image wasn’t a photo at all, but a pastel-on-paper by Helmuth Naumer, Sr. (1907-1990). (This is a humiliating confession by a supposed “serious” philatelist.) And there were two paintings among the stamps as well. “Why,” I thought, “would a sheet of scenic stamps include three rendered as art and 13 as photographs?”

Back to the Naumer pastel, Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon (1935-1936), which I originally thought a highly unusual photograph. Naumer used pastels so as not to lose time mixing oil paint, because of “the fleeting effects of sky and water and our own New Mexico landscapes with fast changing colors sweeping rapidly across it…” And Naumer has captured, at least for me, the sensations of those changing colors and the movement of light and clouds across the landscape.

He was born in Germany and 1907, and in 1926 moved to the U.S. motivated by stories of cowboy life he had read about in novels. In 1932 he settled in Santa Fe and began working with pastels. Naumer said that, “…coming to the Southwest was like coming home.“ He was commissioned by the National Park Service to create artwork for newly built visitor centers constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1935 and 1936 he created fourteen pastels for Bandelier National Monument, which remain in the museum’s collection.

So, having failed to initially notice the artwork content of the NPS centennial sheet, Naumer’s pastel introduced me not only to a unique artist but to the fact that the National Park Service is not just parks. In fact, of the 419 park sites spread across the U.S., 385 have museum collections—from fossils to fine art—all specific to the mission of the individual park. That museum system is the largest in the world, with individual park collections ranging in size from less than 100 objects to over six million—all focused on the natural and cultural heritage of the U.S.

And to answer my earlier question of why three artworks and 13 photographs: the National Park Service is parks…and much more!

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