A Natural Masterpiece: Public Lands and Homelands

Long before the concept of conservation was established in the public mind, artists were traveling America’s great wilderness and bringing back images of grand vistas, unspoiled skies and diverse cultures. So it should come as no surprise that the vast beauty of America’s public lands and tribal homelands have inspired artists for centuries. In turn, these artists have often inspired and heralded conservation movements, revealing the natural and cultural beauty of America to the world.

Check out some of the ways that artists and Interior have come together to produce awe-inspiring art.

Hudson River School

painting of islands and water
Study, Harbor Island, Lake George by David Johnson depicts the picturesque landscape of Lake George in New York. Painting from the National Park Service collection

Spanning the 19th century, the Hudson River School was an American art movement that celebrated the majesty of the natural world. Through their admiration for beauty, students of the Hudson River School prioritized the wonders of the outdoors over the creations of people. As artists like Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Alex Bierstadt and Frederic Church celebrated nature on canvas, city-dwellers were able to hang these picturesque landscapes on their walls, bringing natural beauty into urban scenes. This artistic attention laid the foundation for the creation of the first national park and began to establish conservation as a national value. Hudson River School’s influence is best represented by Acadia National Park, where artists’ depictions of the beautiful scenery inspired patrons and urbanites to flock to Mount Desert Island, encouraging the park’s designation.

Institute of American Indian Arts

An abstract painting a landscape
In Early Dawn Hopi, Dan Namingha depicts the beauty of the Colorado Plateau, showcasing the treasured landscape. Painting courtesy of Niman Fine Arts.

A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts (once run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs), Dan Namingha is a stellar example of the connection between artists and homelands. As a member of the Tewa-Hopi tribe, Namingha uses and visualizes the importance of the local landscape on the people and culture who inhabit it. Tribal people are inherently connected to the earth through their sacred places, and his art evokes this respect for the earth. In paintings and sculptures, Namingha brings to life his idealized childhood landscapes from his time growing up on the Colorado Plateau. Later in his life, he transitioned to abstract art, turning his treasured tribal landscapes into symbols to give viewers a glimpse of his sacred traditions while protecting their sanctity. This abstraction allows Namingha to depict the heart of the landscape, giving viewers nothing but form to contemplate. Namingha is only one of many tribal artists who find their homeland at the heart of their creativity.

Artists-in-Residence

A man with a canvas on an easel stands on a mountaintop using a paint brush to paint the mountain landscape.
Shenandoah National Park’s recent Artist-in-Residence Kevin H. Adams paints the beauty of Skyline Drive and its sweeping vistas. Photo by Mary O’Neill and N. Lewis, National Park Service.

The sights and sounds of public lands inspire artists in more than 50 residency programs across the country. Through this program, artists can stay in natural, historical or cultural settings as the artist-in-residence for 2-4 weeks at a National Park Service site or 6-8 weeks at a Bureau of Land Management site. In these locations, artists experience the virtue and beauty of public lands, and are inspired by artistic and educational opportunities. Cultivating appreciation for public lands through their medium of choice, artists-in-residence function much like a modern-day Hudson River School. 

Works Progress Administration Posters

A colorful poster showing a drawing of an erupting volcano with text describing activities at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
This original WPA poster of Lassen Volcanic National Park from 1938  promotes some of the great artwork produced under Federal Project Number One. Photo from Library of Congress.

It isn’t often that posters flourish as art and enjoy not only public appreciation, but government support as well. During the tough times of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration ran Federal Project Number One -- one of the first government programs to support the arts. From 1935-1943, over 35,000 posters were designed, though only 2,000 are known to exist today. The posters publicized exhibits, community activities and perhaps best of all, the National Parks. The National Parks series continues to inspire contemporary renditions of these famous posters.

Ansel Adams

A black and white photo shows a river curving around trees with tall jagged mountains rising in the background.
Ansel Adams’s photograph of the Snake River looping around the mountains at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Photo from the National Archives.

In 1941, noted photographer Ansel Adams was commissioned by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and the National Park Service to embark on “The Mural Project” where he would capture beautiful scenes of nature. Through Adams’s photography, public lands and homelands were portrayed in dramatic black-and-white vistas, turning conservation into an artform. Twenty-six of these photos are currently on display on the 1st and 2nd floors of the Department of the Interior’s main building in Washington, D.C., as originally envisioned by Adams and then-Secretary Ickes.

Federal Duck Stamp

An enlargement of a stamp that shows a drawing of two ducks swimming on a pond with four ducklings swimming behind them.
John A. Rutheven’s watercolor drawing of redhead ducks was the winner of the 1960 Duck Stamp Contest. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Federal Duck Stamp has been around since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in 1934 at the urging of hunters who wanted to protect wetlands vital to migratory fowl. These cool stamps are the easiest way to support bird habitat conservation, and they’re collectible works of art as well! Every year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds an art contest to select the new stamp design, making them not only mini works of art, but a treasure for stamp collectors across the country. Learn more about the history of the Duck Stamp.

American Artist and Water Reclamation

A painting of a river flowing over rocks with a large concrete damn and a mountain in the background.
Xavier Gonzalez’s oil painting shows the Olympus Dam on the Colorado River. Photo from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation collection.

In the late 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation embarked on a program to use art to highlight its work in the West. Forty of America’s most prominent artists were commissioned to visit Reclamation’s sites throughout the western U.S. and depict their impressions on canvas. Any of Reclamation’s programs could be featured -- from irrigation projects, hydropower generation, recreation, water conservation and wildlife habitat enhancement. Over 375 pieces of art were created through this innovative program, giving the public numerous interpretations of this bureau’s work.

USGS: Earth as Art

A satellite photo taken of the  a landscape transitioning from blues and purples to greens.
Here, the transition from the Painted Desert to Sitgreaves National Forest is depicted in contrasting colors of purple (the desert) and green (the forest), showing the beautiful transition from one ecosystem to the next. Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

The U.S. Geological Survey fuses science and art in its collection “Earth as Art,” which displays striking patterns, colors and shapes that emerge from nature. Through this extraordinary collection, the natural beauty of the world and public lands reveal the many important aspects of  USGS’s work. USGS turns its projects into abstract art, allowing the public to see the world in a new light. For example, from their vantage point in space, satellites are able to view the Earth in ways that average people cannot, presenting different interpretations and perspectives of the world. Check out the gallery -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Composing in the Wilderness

A huge crowd fills a covered amphitheater to watch a concert.
The Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is packed as visitors enjoy an evening concert. Photo by National Park Service.

The sights aren’t the only incredible thing to experience on public lands and homelands. The sounds of animals and nature have inspired musicians for centuries. One example is the “Composing in Wilderness” program in Denali National Park and Preserve, where nine composers were able to spend a few days learning about the soundscapes of this legendary Alaska park. Musicians captured the essence and majesty of the park, sharing their work at the Concert Hall in Fairbanks. If you’re looking to experience music in a national park, look no further than Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia, where the park hosts world-class performances from May-September.

Interior Wall Murals

A painting of Native Americans in traditional clothes sharing food.
In Harvest Dance 2, Kiowa dancers and women are surrounded by the traditional harvest feast and traditional Kiowa homes, showing both the ceremonial and social scenes of Kiowa life. Mural by James Auchiah.

Ansel Adams isn’t the only artwork on display at Interior. When the Main Interior Building was dedicated on April 16, 1936, it was heralded as “a symbol of the new day" and emblematic of the nation's resources. Under the guidance of then-Secretary Ickes, art became a key feature of the building. The main Interior building contains 27 major works of art that were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, all of which portray the spirit of the Interior and its programs. These murals showcase the best of what the Interior has to offer: public lands and homelands that bring beauty, jobs and innovation to the country.

From paintings and photographs to compositions and even the written word, public lands and homelands are strongholds of inspiration. Whether you are a budding artist or well established, grab your supplies and head outside -- your next masterpiece is waiting!