Smokey Bear Roars Back to Spotlight at Chrysler Museum

Art Chrysler Museum

By Jeff Maisey

Have you noticed Smokey Bear is seemingly everywhere these days?

Well, he’s roaring back in time for his 70th birthday, which, as it turns out, is the centennial of the Virginia Department of Forestry.

For the occasion, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared August 9 Smokey Bear Day.

“Smokey Bear has been at the forefront of our wildfire prevention efforts for 70 years,” said State Forester of Virginia Bettina Ring. “We’ll never be sure of the exact number of fires that never occurred because people heeded Smokey’s advice, but we do know that there are far less wildfires since Smokey’s been on the job. It’s a great honor for Smokey to be recognized by the Governor in this way.”

Smokey Bear, also referred to as Smokey The Bear, was a smart choice of a mascot devised by illustrator Rudy Wendelin for the US Forest Service. Wendelin, a Forest Service employee from 1937 to 1973, created a kid-friendly, almost Disney-like bear to make families aware that humans are the source of most forest fires. The advertising slogan “Smokey Says, Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires” was developed in 1944, but had changed by 1947 to “Remember: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

The important message of fire prevention was communicated by Smokey, semi-dressed as a forest ranger, and serving as an educator. The animated animals of the forest, in Wendelin’s work, represented families directly impacted by the destruction of forest fire, representing a loss of habitat.

The Chrysler Museum of Art, fresh off its highly successful Rubber Ducky exhibition for the grand re-opening, returns to the realm of iconic American pop culture to display 19 of Wendelin’s original paintings of Smokey Bear. The artworks, on loan from Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library, U.S. Department of Agriculture, have never before been on public display. The show also includes preparatory drawings, memorabilia, and collectibles inspired by Wendelin’s artwork.

The Smokey exhibition fits right in with the Chrysler Museum’s history of showing illustrations, including those of Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell.

“We would put these very solidly in the category of illustration, works that were made to be reproduced as posters or calendars,” said Chrysler Museum deputy director Susan Leidy. Leidy co-curated the exhibit with interpretation manager Seth Feman and education director Anne Corso.

“One of the nice things about this show,” said Feman, “is that it is really great to be able to compare the illustrations, and the detail Rudy put into his work. To see the actual paint and visualize the choices he made really shows the artistic craft that goes into it.”

It provides a gateway into the museum for residents who may not otherwise have an interest in visual art. All of the paintings speak to the forest fire prevention theme. Within the exhibition space will be literature provided by the Virginia Forest Service.  Like the artwork itself, the Smokey Bear exhibit magically pairs art and education in an easy to understand way.

“One of the things I find interesting is the challenge Rudy had to face,” said Feman. “One is the issue of having a bear as your mascot, which is a ferocious figure, and how you make it deliver a theme in a friendly way. It is a very strong, dark message that is communicated in a way that is accessible to anyone. The other interesting challenge he faced was having to coordinate between the Ad Council, Forest Service and the publisher of the calendar, which these works ultimately went into. He had to negotiate between all of these stakeholders. We think of an artist working independently, but they often work in these collaborative structures. His work really represents that.”


One Day Only: Meet Smokey Bear

The free Family Day starts at 10 a.m. and features a caricaturist and creative hands-on activities such

as papermaking, forest collages, coloring, and sculpting small Smokey Bears. A Family Tour of the

exhibition begins at 11 a.m., followed by a special tour for active-duty military and Blue Star Families at

noon. Throughout the day, The Museum Shop will feature Smokey-themed souvenirs and lucky guests

will win raffles for exhibition posters. After enjoying the show, guests can write a personal letter to

Smokey (who has his own ZIP code), and pick up a special free keepsake booklet produced by the

Virginia Department of Forestry.

The birthday bear himself will be at the Chrysler from 12:30 to 3 p.m. to meet visitors and pose for

photographs. At 1 p.m., everyone is invited to enjoy birthday cake (without candles, in deference to our

special guest’s preference to prevent wildfires).


Celebrating Smokey Bear: Rudy Wendelin and the Creation of an Icon 

Chrysler Museum of Art

Through February 1





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