Smiling Amish children peer from the back of a horse-drawn buggy traveling a two-lane country road as dairy cattle graze nearby against a backdrop of green pastureland dotted with barns, grain silos and farmhouses.
The pastoral scene calls to mind a peaceful day in Lancaster County, Pa. But for poster illustrator Paul Lanquist, of Ariel, Wash., the tranquil setting is another story of America to share with the world—without uttering a word.
Periodically throughout the year, Lanquist, 52, and his wife, Leslie, 50, roam the nation with their digital camera, capturing iconic images, natural beauty and dramatic history that define the character of America. Returning to his studio in the Cascade Mountains, Lanquist uses the images as inspiration to create souvenir-style poster illustrations in a look that hearkens back to the 1930s.
"If I go to these places, touch history, see it and feel it, I can re-create it in my studio," says Lanquist, whose posters have celebrated breathtaking landscapes of Washington's Mount Rainier and Wyoming's Old Faithful; images of history such as soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg and World War II fighter planes; and portraits of Americana ranging from Western cowboys to family road trips through the Rocky Mountains.
"I love telling stories. All my (artistic) heroes, like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, are great storytellers," Lanquist says. "I love to put myself in those places in the stories and explore the things I cant always do in real life."
Lanquist conducts weeks, sometimes months, of research to find images that ensure his posters are historically accurate and authentic for his clients, which range from the National Park Service to the Boeing Museum of Flight.
For instance, for a poster for the Mary McLeod Bethune House, a National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., he pored over images and historical accounts in the National Archives to understand Bethune's pioneering role as a black educator and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For his poster of Pennsylvania Dutch life, the Lanquists scoured the countryside for scenes that reflect the spirit of America's oldest Amish settlement. When they came upon Amish children looking from the rear of a horse-drawn buggy traveling a country road, Leslie snapped photographs of the unhurried and unguarded moment. "That (image) is the one that Paul used as inspiration for the poster," Leslie says.
"With Paul, you are tempted to use that old saying, 'A picture is worth a thousand words,'" says Scott Standish, a heritage director for the Lancaster County Planning Commission. "But Paul captures such a spirit of place. You get a sense that you are really there in the poster, right down to the clothesline fluttering in the breeze."
Lanquist works in a former horse stable converted into an art studio next to his home in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. The studio is filled with objects to inspire him—hats of all kinds, ski poles, a gun holster, a fishing creel and books on an array of subjects—along with his computer, electronic pen and digital tablet—the tools that allow him to create in a few hours what used to take him days or weeks with paint or pen and ink on a flat canvas.
After completing his research, Lanquist builds his illustration like a jigsaw puzzle on his computer screen, piecing together magazine pictures or photographs that he and Leslie have taken, sometimes using posed models.
"I use my kids in a lot of poses," he says. "Three of my sons—Burt, Scott and Daniel—are soldiers in the Gettysburg poster series. Our neighbor's children are the faces of the Amish kids in the Lancaster poster. I go to yard sales. I go through old magazines. I find inspiration everywhere."
The optimism and natural beauty celebrated in his work stems from Lanquist's own idyllic childhood growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., where afternoon playtime with neighborhood children included pretending to be cowboys or building a suit of armor from discarded cardboard boxes. His love of the outdoors was nurtured by fishing trips with his father, riding horses along the Kern River in the San Joaquin Valley, and exploring the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
"I like to go to the woods and think. And I think everyone has a special place outdoors that is unique to where they live," Lanquist says. "There are so many beautiful places in America and stories to tell about them."