Animators Behind ‘Lady And The Tramp’ And ‘Iron Giant’ Share Their Non-Animated Work
Like many small indoor spaces, the Animation Guild’s Gallery 839 has been closed for the past couple of years, thanks to the pandemic. But it's holding a grand reopening Thursday afternoon featuring animators who worked on classics like Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, The Iron Giant, and Sleeping Beauty.
When the Animation Guild moved into its current building around 2009, the space allowed the members to meet each other as membership was growing, according to Guild business representative Steve Kaplan. It also provided a space for members to show their work. The waitlist for its members to show in the space has traditionally been at least a year long, the work rotating out monthly.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to make one of the reopening moments a new, fresh gallery show,” Kaplan said.
It’s a celebratory moment as we move into a new stage of the pandemic and as the Animation Guild comes out of a contentious contract negotiation, according to Kaplan.
An Art Show Years In The Making
The grand reopening show features the work of four animators: Floyd Norman, Robert Tyler, Christine Mallouf, and Lureline Weatherly. Their work will be on display, and available for purchase, all month. The pieces range from Tyler’s African-inspired fine art to Norman’s Disney watercolors.
The show was originally planned for 2020, before being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — then canceled again in 2021.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking given where we are as far as the [COVID-19] infection goes,” Kaplan said, “but it’s something that we wanted to at least use as a litmus test to see not only the willingness of people to come back and be next to each other, but to do so in this fun, social way.”
“It looks like this show is finally going to come off,” Norman said.
The first Black artist to work for Disney, Norman started working for Walt back in 1956. He still loves those characters.
“I’m a total Disney freak, to be quite honest,” Norman said. “I was all-in with Disney when I was a child. I read Disney comic books when I was a kid, in the backseat of my father’s car.”
He’d go to Disney movies, and the only reason he wasn’t watching Disney television is that no one had a TV set at the time, according to Norman.
When it comes to exhibiting his work, though, he wasn’t sure he saw himself as a gallery artist.
“I’m a storyteller, I’m a filmmaker,” Norman said. “The work I did, I did pretty much for myself. I did it as my own personal hobby — sometimes I called it therapy, because it was an opportunity to get away from the digital world I was working in and go back to the traditional ways of creating art using pencil, paper, pen and ink, and watercolors.”
But after painting dozens of Disney-inspired watercolors, someone asked him about exhibiting them. He’s received a warm reception for his work.
“I know [the Disney characters] well, because over a nearly 60-year period, I’ve worked on so many of the Disney films — feature films, short cartoons, TV shows,” Norman said. “The work just flows out of me. I don’t even consider it work.”
Norman hopes that seeing the show can help bring back people’s memories from when they were kids and watched Robin Hood or Pinocchio.
“I’ve had the chance to walk through, and I’m just amazed by what I’ve seen,” Kaplan said. “And just to be able to see art on the wall again has been a thrill for me.”
A Life Of Disney
All that Norman ever wanted to do was to become a Disney animator. Someone from the company’s publishing arm reached out to him early on, spotting his talent for Disney storytelling.
“He said, ‘I think you know how to write this stuff.’ And I said, ‘Nah, not really — I just do what I do,’” Norman said.
He was given homework: go home and write a Disney story over the weekend. When he brought it back, he was hired on the spot.
“He said he needed people who knew how to write Disney, and he was having terrible luck finding people who could — who were able to tell a story, but to tell a story in a Disney fashion,” Norman said.
That instinct was put to use when Norman was working on Disney’s Robin Hood, which Walt was unhappy with.
We put a little bit of joy and happiness in people’s lives. And I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor.
“Walt didn’t like it at all,” Norman said. “And a lot of people were wondering, ‘What does he want? What does he want?’ I knew what he wanted. Because I just knew it deep down inside, what Walt Disney wanted was a Walt Disney film, a Walt Disney story.”
He credits growing up on Disney stories, music, and movies with giving him that instinct for both the writing and the art, along with a deep knowledge of the Disney personalities.
“A Disney story — and this comes from the old man himself,” Norman said, “he says that you’ve got to create a story that the audiences can resonate with. Perhaps they can’t articulate it, but they know when something works. They know when something’s authentic. They know when a story makes sense.”
Norman credited Walt Disney with being an excellent story editor, and was thankful to have learned from him firsthand how to tell those stories.
Staying Creative After Decades-Long Careers
Norman’s retired now, but he still serves as a consultant for Disney. He said he saw where the industry was going, and jumped into the transition from hand-drawn animation to 3D digital work. That included moving north to work for Pixar.
“I knew this was the future,” Norman said. “I was probably considered an old codger by most of the kids at Pixar at that time, [but] they respected my many years at the Disney studio, and the fact that I had worked with Walt Disney himself.”
He had mixed feelings about the transition to 3D computer animation, as did another of the artists whose work is being shown, Robert Tyler. Like Norman, Tyler was also one of the first Black people hired by Disney and spent decades working in traditional 2D animation. Unlike Norman, Tyler didn’t jump into the digital world — after 40 years working for animation studios on films from Robin Hood to The Iron Giant, Tyler said, he pivoted to doing fine art.
Looking at his work, you’ll see inspiration from African tradition and European masters mixing together — Tyler cited Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet in particular. His work includes surrealist paintings, woodblock art, work created with palm fronds, and oil paintings of African mask designs. According to Tyler, his work is inspired by life experience for the most part, but sometimes he’ll find ideas from a tune on the radio or a title coming to mind.
But he brings skills he learned from animation with him. He has a tight style, with animation influencing how he draws details and fine lines, as well as his oil painting.
This is Tyler’s fourth show at the Animation Guild, following one prior solo exhibition and two group shows. He noted that one difference in galleries now is that you’re not going to find animation cels from current films, thanks to the end of the physical side of creating these films.
A Place For Friends
Along with showing art, another perk of the gallery is providing a space for animators to gather.
“Everybody knows each other, basically, especially from the 2D era,” Tyler said. “We still reminisce. Some animators have transformed over to 3D — some of them don’t like it, but it’s a paycheck. They still wish 2D would come back.”
He longs for the days of 2D animation — while it’s not a lost art, Tyler said, it takes longer for studios to get their investment back. He compared his work on Robin Hood, an animated film that they spent three years on, to Disney’s ability now to create a CGI feature in six to eight months.
“My personal feeling is the CGI doesn’t have the same feeling as the 2D — like comparing Snow White with Frozen,” Tyler said. “Both have a good story, but Snow White has more charm to it — even with the imperfections, but it was done in 1937 and it’s still good.”
Tyler feels that 2D animation provided more freedom, while sitting down to create art at the computer isn’t the same — he compared it to the differences in driving a manual versus an automatic car. He also lamented companies being focused on budgets, with those in charge focused more on accounting than art.
Norman has more positive feelings about the business side of animation — he’s stayed in touch with the staff at Pixar, and he’ll still go visit on occasion due to his love of animation.
“I have a genuine interest in this business, in this medium. I could never walk away,” Norman said. “Some people can retire. They go off and they travel the world, or they play golf, or they sit beside their pool in their backyard. I could never do that. I have to continue to work.”
And Norman said that drawing cartoon characters all day and getting paid for it is the best job in the world.
“We put a little bit of joy and happiness in people’s lives. And I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor,” Norman said. “I’ve been lucky to have spent my life basically making children laugh and making adults smile.”
All four of the artists whose work is on display are longtime friends. Tyler praised the work of the other three animators, noting that he’d worked with all of them over the years. Weatherly still works in Disney animation, while Mallouf teaches art both at the community college level and to kids.
After the reopening event, Gallery 839 will be open to anyone who’s interested in seeing the work — but you have to make an appointment. Tyler said if you put in a request, he can even come to the gallery to talk about the art with you during your visit. You’ll find both original work and prints for sale.