Posting Patriotism

Monday, November 5, 2012
Witter Gallery Director Ron Stevenson shows off a rare original 1917 "Uncle Sam" poster by James Montgomery Flagg. Restored, such posters have brought $15,000 at auction.

It's the art that mobilized a nation.

After six years of effort to preserve a collection of historic World War I and World War II posters, 21 of the precious lithographs will be displayed to the public for the first time as the Witter Gallery's November exhibit, opening Tuesday. A special reception will be held on Veteran's Day, Sunday the 11th.

Unlike most of the receptions, there will be no artist on hand to greet visitors - in most cases, the creators of this artwork were anonymous and unpaid, though many were among the greatest illustrators of their time. The few that are known - long gone.

Over 700 poster designs were produced during WWI alone, with many millions of copies printed to help convince men to enlist, women to work in war-support jobs back home, and everyone to buy war bonds and support the Red Cross. On fragile paper stock, most lasted only a short time and were discarded.

One Storm Lake artist, however, saw the master strokes within the posters others took for granted. At the estate auction of Ella Witter, namesake of the gallery in Storm Lake, friends of the arts found a collection of war posters and were wise enough to have them set aside.

Eventually, they were trusted into the custody of Witter Gallery Director Ron Stevenson, who began searching for ways to stabilize and preserve the posters.

While no one is certain where the posters came from, Stevenson likes to imagine the matriarch of Storm Lake's cultural arts identity hitting the streets, adopting the posters as they came down from bank walls and bulletin boards.

The original plan was to have them restored, a process that can bleach the paper white, wash away staining, and eliminate tears and fading. The gallery board balked at turning over the posters to a restorer, however, without having them insured. And to get insured, they would have to be entrusted and sent to an expert for appraisal. It seemed like an impasse.

In the meantime, however, Stevenson was touching base with some of the national experts on the posters, and came to the conclusion that the best fate for the posters would be to stay original, with all of their patina and imperfections.

The effort turned to finding a way to showcase the posters so they could be displayed and still be kept safe. Stevenson settled on a system of sandwiched thick plexiglass that allow both sides and the complete edges of the works to be seen, impossible with frames. With a grant from BV Foundation and some private donations, the cost was finally met.

This week, he was finishing putting the plexi around the last of the posters, preparing to mount the exhibit.

"I think there will be a lot of interest. There are a real part of Americana, and for their age, the color is still great," he said. In the meantime, he is approaching Genesis Development, the employment program for disAbled clients that has come up with custom box-making equipment to earn contracts with the likes of Walt Disney Studios. Special boxes are planned for the posters, which come in several sizes.

With protective packaging, the posters can be a traveling exhibit so they can be appreciated elsewhere. Stevenson also envisions setting up a tent and displaying some of the art for Memorial Day ceremonies at the courthouse green. When they are home in the Gallery's care, a new storage rack has been built to properly house them.

Why so much care? Aside from the historical and artistic value of the works, they are wicked valuable.

Some of the prime pieces are worth perhaps $1,500 and $2,500 apiece to collectors. Duplicates of one, an original, signed 1917 "I Want You" Uncle Sam by famed magazine illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, have sold at auction for up to $15,000.

More than four million of the iconic Uncle Sam images were made for World War I, and it was brought out of retirement and reprinted for World War II. The famous tale is that Flagg didn't want to spend the fee for a model, so used his own face as the image for Sam, which persists to this day.

The propaganda was undeniably successful in stirring patriotism and sacrifice. After the first world war, Congress tallied up the bills and found that two- thirds of the cost of the war had been raised by poster bond drives.

"The question I have is - why did it stop? After the World Wars, there was never an artistic effort like this again. There were a few basic recruiting posters for branches of the military for Vietnam, but nothing like this," Stevenson said. "This was clearly the end of a special artistic era."

* Editor's note: The war poster exhibit's public reception will be held 1-2:30 p.m. on Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11. Admission is free.