by Charles McGuigan
Two VCU communication art students, both seniors, were recently awarded a grant to create a series of old-school graphic posters highlighting some of Virginia’s most precious land holdings—her state parks.
Catherine McGuigan was holed up in her art studio, between projects, when her mind began to wonder, and to synthesize, the twin mothers of invention.
“I have these flights of fancy where I get really set on doing a thing,” she says. “I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and I love our state parks.”
In her mind’s eyes, she saw those iconic posters created in the late 1930s and early 1940s through one of FDR’s brilliant New Deal programs, the Work Projects Administration. These were hand-printed silk screens, melding illustration and graphic design, and they promoted America’s most sacred treasures—her National Parks.
“They have a unique graphic style to them,” says Catherine. “They’re illustrations, but they’re also graphics. So they do a good job combining those two elements, and they’ve got that clean blocky text.”
As the seed of this idea was germinating, Catherine called friend and fellow comm art student, Madison Hall. When the call came, Madi, as she’s known to most, just so happened to be hiking deep within the Pisgah National Forest just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, North Carolina. While she hiked, listening to her friend’s idea, Madi nodded along, made suggestions, and when the two got together later in the summer, they began hatching a plan.
It seems like a particularly appropriate time for this project considering the current administration’s continuous assaults on our public lands.
“I don’t remember when he (the current president) stopped a lot of the funding for the National Parks, but it was pretty early on,” Catherine says.
“He wouldn’t allow park employees to use social media to advocate for the National Parks,” says Madi.
Catherine nods. “So, they have an alt National Parks,” she says.
“We want to engage people to advocate for our parks,” Madi says. “That’s part of it.”
Between now and next November, the pair plan to visit at least a dozen of the state’s 36 parks, and create twelve posters. At this point, Madi and Catherine have visited five state parks, and have already begun rough sketches.
Along with the posters, they will also create T-shirts, bandanas and other merchandise.
“Some of the proceeds will go to funding for the state parks,” says Catherine. “I like an idea like that; I have certain values.”
Not long after the pair began planning the project, Catherine submitted a proposal for funding to VCUarts. In her request for an undergraduate research grant, Catherine wrote, “The goal of this project will be to showcase the beauty of Virginia’s State Parks while exploring two traditional printing techniques. Our hope is to create a series of posters that help illustrate what the parks have to offer . . . This is meant to be an immersive process to learn techniques we are not taught in our current discipline.” The proposed budget—about $1,500—included everything from park passes to art supplies.
Early in January, Madi and Catherine received a letter from VCUarts notifying them that they had been awarded the grant.
“I hope you are as proud as we are as this opportunity is very competitive,” wrote Andrew Ilnicki of VCUarts. “Each year many creative projects are submitted and the selection decision is a difficult one.”
One of the objectives of the grant is to teach Catherine and Madi traditional printing methods. “We budgeted for linoleum and screen printing,” Catherine explains. “To make it a research grant we had to experiment with different techniques. We’re not taught any of this stuff in comm arts today. It’s almost all’s purely digital, and they’ve kind of steered away from traditional media, or teaching the foundations of it. That is something we are going to try to delve into especially with a teacher-mentor type person.”
“I’m super into print media and stuff like that,” says Madi
“I’ve always liked printing,” Catherine says. “I almost went into painting and print-making.”
The first three posters Madi and Catherine plan will feature Shenandoah River, Kiptopeke and Westmoreland state parks. After that it will be on to Douthat, then Fairy Stone. “And definitely Grayson Highlands,” says Catherine. “There are wild horses there, and at the top of Mount Rogers they have one of the only remaining red spruce forests in Virginia.” Catherine, a true double-major who will also receive a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, adds: “The micro-climate that’s up there is so significant that it is the only place in Virginia where the red spruce can grow.”
“We’ll have ten or twelve done by November,” Madi says.
“We have it staggered so we’ll go to one or two parks a month,” Catherine says. “Once we get the process underway, we’ll have a more structured timeline.”
Catherine talks about the red-orange bluffs of Horse Head Cliffs at Westmoreland State Park, and how they contrast with the rich blue-grey marl of the shoreline, which is littered with fossils, vertebrae of whales and teeth of sharks from 15 million years ago, along with our own state fossil—Chesapecten jeffersonius.
“We’re always looking for the perfect image to reflect the park,” says Madi.
“Or images,” Catherine says. “Sometimes there are a number of images.”
In lieu of signatures, they plan to create a sort of cartouche, a monogram combining both their names that can be stamped on all their work, like the seal of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer. And after college, these two talented young women plan to open their own print studio in Richmond.