Across southeast Utah, red and orange rock fills a sandstone landscape with rivers meeting among the canyons.
“It’s almost embarrassingly scenic,” said Karen Garthwait, an interpretive specialist at Canyonlands and Arches national parks. The latter is home to more than 2,000 natural arches.
“These features pop up at you in the foreground, commanding your attention,” she added.
That includes Delicate Arch with its 46-foot-tall opening. The arch is a symbol not only for the park but also for Utah, depicted on many of its license plates. But seeing it in person didn’t wow one visitor who left a disappointed online review saying the arch “looks nothing like the license plate.”
The review caught the eye of North Carolina-based illustrator Amber Share.
“It was kind of like a bolt of lightning,” Share said.
In late 2019, Share was looking for a project to reignite her love for illustration after years of working in marketing and graphic design. Inspired by a post on Reddit, she found one-star reviews had been written for every national park. The review for Arches turned into her first poster in a series she calls, “Subpar Parks.”
“For the Badlands, the review was, ‘The only thing bad about these lands is the entire experience,’” she laughed. “It’s one of those things where you know they’re mad about it and they’re in the shower later and they come up with just the best zinger that they have to put out there.”
Share’s poster for Mesa Verde National Park places a cliff dwelling, one of the thousands of ancestral Puebloan sites within the park, against its review saying there’s “not much to look at.” A review for Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park lamented not being able to touch lava.
“Touching molten lava is something that Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park actively discourages,” said Jessica Ferracane, public affairs specialist for the park.
“It’s not only dangerous to touch molten lava … that’s considered very disrespectful in Native Hawaiian culture to poke or prod flowing lava.”
The island itself is made of lava, so Ferrance argues the park’s more than 300,000 acres should make for plenty of lava touching.
As the Hawai’i Volcanoes social media accounts shared its poster and interacted with others from Subpar Parks, Ferracane noticed people rallying around parks by sharing photos of their visits. Garthwait also noticed this and compares the project to the long history of art as promotion for national parks.
“Throwing this extra dash of humor on it just really appeals to a more modern audience than something like a Thomas Moran painting,” she said.
But Garthwait understands how some visitors feel, and recalls someone at a Canyonlands visitor center muttering under her breath.
“I could hear she was saying, ‘Rocks! Rocks! Nothing but rocks! Not even any birds!’ Garthwait said, laughing. “She was just not feeling it.”
Garthwait says she doesn’t expect a park to prescribe an experience, even if she, Ferracane, and other rangers make their best efforts to prepare visitors for what parks have to offer.
“Maybe it’s not always awesome. And maybe these are just snarky for the fun of it. But all of it’s okay.”
Share also relates to disgruntled reviews — she wants her project to be viewed as a commentary on how we behave online. Feeling angry sets off what she describes as a “one-star-review impulse” in everyone and nobody is immune from hearing it.
“I started talking to other people, especially people who own stores or restaurants, and they were like, ‘Your project helps me so much because it just makes me realize that no matter what I bring to the table, someone is gonna be upset,’” Share said.
Since its launch, Subpar Parks has drawn more than 240,000 followers on Instagram. The success of poster sales has allowed Share to transition out of a full-time job in March — the demand has also kept Share and her husband busy with mailing orders. She’s also exploring wholesale since gift shops in towns near national parks, including Glacier and Joshua Tree, are hoping to carry her work.
Share plans to finish illustrating the last of the 62 national parks by August 14. Next, she’s going international with Canada’s and other country’s public lands.
“I know there are not great reviews about their parks,” she said. “Because this is not a uniquely American thing.”
As an outdoors lover herself, Share says Grand Canyon National Park has a special place in her heart. She visited the park as a kid with her family while transferring between military bases, and it was the park where she first went backpacking. Her own one-star review?
“There is just too much to look at.”