The National Agricultural Library might not be the first place you’d think to visit for its fine art, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture repository actually has a sophisticated collection of oil and acrylic paintings on public display. The artwork has been accumulated over the course of the Forest Service’s seven decade-long Smokey Bear public information campaign.
The Smokey paintings were created from 1979 to 1996 by Forest Service employee Rudy Wendelin. They show the spokesbear patrolling public lands, extinguishing campfires, and generally preaching the gospel about wildfire prevention.
In one painting, the anthropomorphized park ranger addresses a gaggle of cubs, deer, and squirrels while explaining a chart containing a human stick figure, a lit match, and a charred tree trunk. Another piece titled Hurry Up - Here They Come shows Smokey tacking up fire safety signage as a stream of campers and RVs approach in the distance. A third shows Smokey perusing a piece of fan mail, an example of the hundreds of thousands of letters that really have been mailed to the Forest Service.
The Smokey campaign was first created during World War II to safeguard the nation’s lumber reserves. Early depictions variously present him as a buffoonish cartoon or as a young cub.
Though Wendelin didn’t invent the Smokey character, he’s regarded as the character’s “caretaker” and is credited with its refinement. On Wendelin’s easel, the style grew more photorealistic: paws were replaced with hands, and the personality shifted into that of a solemn guardian.
The result was one of most beloved government mascots in the U.S., and one that has aged far better than contemporaries like the Civil Defense Bert the Turtle character. As the USDA blog has noted, Smokey stands as “a promise that everything will be okay” if we all work together for the good of society.
In addition to the Wendelin paintings, the National Agricultural Library has accumulated 115 linear feet of Smokey graphics, posters, photos, and other memorabilia. The USDA, which administers the Forest Service and the Agricultural Library, started collecting the Smokey art in 1986 as a permanent snapshot of the program. The collection is still growing, thanks to contributions from various Forest Service offices.