Aug 27, 2015

Local artists help transform vintage Airstream trailer into work of art

A one-of-a-kind Airstream trailer that celebrates the history of America's national parks will make a stop in Cody next month.

The vintage 1948 Airstream trailer is set to be finished and on display at the By Western Hands event, scheduled for Sept. 23-27 in Cody.

The camper's owner, former Grand Teton National Park Ranger Doug Leen, will use the trailer to promote national parks and their rich history during a tour across America.

Powell artist Janet Bedford was charged with transforming the Airstream trailer into a literal work of art.

Bedford has painted the trailer's concave interior walls into a colorful canvas depicting scenes from national parks across the country.

A painted scene in the airstream trailer shows the Grand Tetons and Monument Valley. Cody News Co. photo by Matt Naber

At 19 feet long, it’s just big enough to accommodate a bed, kitchen, shower, toilet and table without having to step outside to reconfigure furniture.

“They are beautifully engineered, but on the inside they are plain and feebly built,” Leen said. “The frame was good, but the whole trailer is an axel-up restoration.”

The trailer originally didn’t have a bathroom or shower, but it does now — along with an air conditioner, flat-screen TV, stereo and new furniture.

The furniture was built by Lester Santos of Santos Furniture in Cody, an old friend of Leen’s, who recommended Bedford for the interior painting, Leen said.

Leen provided Santos with the specifics on how to use every square-inch of the trailer’s interior so that it now has a shower and restroom and modern amenities such as a stereo, anti-theft system and flat TV while maintaining the “old character of the Airstream,” Santos said.

“We wanted to keep the look and feel of it,” Santos said.

The artwork is on every wall inside the trailer. Cody News Co. photo by Matt Naber
Bedford’s paintings reminded Santos of the vintage posters Leen was working with, Santos said.

“I had to repaint the interior anyway, and thought I’d do a diorama and blend the furniture in with the art design,” Leen said. “And, really do it up right — I liken this to the chapel of Airstreams, and Janet is the Michelangelo of Airstreams.”

Comparing Bedford to Michelangelo seems appropriate, since her painting goes up and around the trailer’s ceiling.

“It has all been a challenge,” Bedford said earlier this month. “The hardest part was painting an eagle in the sky; controlling my hand like that was really hard. I wanted it small, like it was way up in the sky — I kept at it, touched it up a bit.”

Leen’s trailer was brought to Bedford at the end of April, and she’s been working on it since then, she said.

Powell artist Janet Bedford is turning a vintage Airstream trailer into a work of art. Cody News Co. photo by Matt Naber

The amount of time Bedford spends painting the trailer’s interior depends on weather, typically in stints of a few hours on up to six hours.

“When it is hot out, that thing is like an oven,” Bedford said. “I’ll go back out when it is past the hottest part of the day, but then the light gets to be tough.”

Bedford’s work was cut out for her, as the inside of the trailer wasn’t exactly a blank canvas; she is painting around the custom-made furniture.

“I’ve been working very carefully — things like the curtain rods are riveted, and they are sharp,” Bedford said. “Just being careful — lots of blue tape. Even working under the sink gives me a stiff neck.”

The trailer features a sunrise scene at the front end near the chandelier and a Native American design near the sink. To the right of the door, there’s a scene of Monument Valley across from a view of Grand Teton — providing an impossible view of some of the country’s most picturesque locations all at once.

“I liken this to the chapel of Airstreams, and Janet is the Michelangelo of Airstreams,” said Doug Leen.

The bedroom in the back is a night scene of the Grand Canyon with a stormy sky and a cowboy campfire with the Airstream trailer nearby. But something was missing.

“I put in the Sleeping Giant mountain that looks like a person snoring and I kept thinking, ‘It isn’t right to not have Yellowstone,’” Bedford said as she explained her collaboration with Leen. “I envisioned, since it was the bedroom, doing Old Faithful in the moonlight, and he came back with, ‘How about Old Faithful in the moonlight?’ We were definitely on the same page.”

Bedford’s been painting, sculpting and doing artwork of all varieties since childhood, but this is her first time painting a trailer. Her works can be found on display in the area, including the panther statue in Powell High School, so she’s no stranger to a challenge.

“The difference is dealing with the curves — it curves in more than one direction at a time, and dealing with the rivets, I have to make them not show too much,” Bedford said.

Ranger Doug Leen Courtesy photo
Painting on concave walls makes perspective tricky as well. When viewed straight ahead everything looks in line, but as the vantage point shifts to the side, the curved surface becomes more noticeable.

“You have to choose which spot is going to be the best, most frequented,” Bedford said. “Anything vertical is only vertical in one spot, but move to the side and it all goes askew.”

Leen will use the trailer as he tours the country, discussing national parks’ history.

Leen, currently of Alaska, is returning to his campfire roots after 32 years as a dentist, inspired by an unexpected find that led to more national park discoveries.

Back when he was still a park ranger in the Grand Tetons, he found an old Jenny Lake poster from the 1930s that was in a burn pile.

That poster turned out to be one of only 14 designs the Work Projects Administration made following the Great Depression under The New Deal.

The poster series promoted everything from safety tips to encouraging visits to America’s national parks.

A poster from the early 20th century promoting national parks. Image courtesy Library of Congress
“They were just meant to educate and motivate people,” Leen said.

But World War II struck, and the national park poster series stopped before all the parks could get the same artistic treatment. It was never picked up again.

Over the years, posters were thrown away, re-purposed, lost and memory of them faded like the posters themselves.

The WPA hired artists and screened millions of posters for everything from reminding people to wear hard hats to brushing their teeth. The park poster series originally had 2 million copies, and only 2,000 are known to exist today, Leen said.

“So, 99.9 percent of the public poster art has been lost forever,” Leen said.

Leen found a set of black and white photos of the poster series in the archives at Harper’s Ferry National Park and restored the entire set. When he finished, the National Park Service asked him to make posters in the same style as the original 14, Leen said.

Now Leen is taking the posters on the road for the National Park Centennial with campfire and auditorium talks about the Work Projects Administration and its impact.

“I am going to be the Johnny Appleseed of the WPA,” Leen said. “I will give a talk anywhere people will listen.”

Of course, he will be hitting the road in style, with his sleeping quarters being a literal work of art on wheels. Leen will be in Jackson for the Western Design Conference on Sept. 9-13 and in Cody on Sept. 23-27 for By Western Hands.

For more information and to check out the latest schedule of talks, go to or

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