My American Dream: City of Angels
Mickey, My Sister and Me, 2023 Oil on linen 48 × 50”
Mickey, My Sister and Me, 2023
Oil on linen 48 × 50”

This is a painting from a photo right off my parent’s bedroom wall, from a trip we took to Disneyworld (standing in for Disneyland in this show) the first year it had opened, in 1971 when I was just six years old.   Disney had a huge influence on me just like he had for the world, and my sister and I were over the top when my parents surprised us with a trip to one of the happiest places on earth!  We had been taken to every Disney movie, new and old growing up, and The Wonderful World of Disney was on television every week, and “Uncle Walt” was like a combination of a grandfather and living God projecting his vision to my imagination.  When Disneyworld was being established, it was broadcast through his program, and when my sister and I were thinking we were going home from visiting my real grandparents in the South but came out of the airplane to humid air and palm trees on posters in the gateway, my sister realized the surprise excited exclaimed “we are going to Disneyworld” a moment I shall never forget!

As I rendered this, I listened to the Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination biography by Neal Gabler for yet another time, and am just as inspired now as when I was a kid by this living embodiment (and myth creator) of the true American Dream, coming from nothing and with a vision (and also coming from cartooning, like myself) building a whole world, literally with the parks but even more so with the ideological underpinnings of all his stories helped to establish.  He was a genius too for recognizing other’s genius, and with his company, was able to tell the stories he wanted to tell, and invent the tools and organizations in which to do it, seldom compromising his vision for profit or motive, but sticking to his guns to make experimental film (Fantasia, and so more), pioneer Nature Documentaries, and make cartoon creations come alive (and live people into the cartoon, i.e. Mary Poppins) where anything and everything could be the simulacra that became the reality.  Jim Henson and so many other creators wish they could build the imagination empire that Disney did, and despite his many faults (anti-union, becoming conservative, pro-outing Marxist leaning Hollywood during McCarthy, supposed antisemitic leanings—unproven), the overwhelming goodness of his work, created ultimately to inspire people to be their best and make the world a better place, is overwhelming.  He also pioneered animatronics, and the human-meets-animated worlds of computer driven entertainments that were visionary for today—sometimes in scary ways—and the future.

I was thinking all these thoughts while creating this work, while also teaching at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design where I am a tenured full Professor of Art—and keeping real to my roots in comics. Before coming to USC I was teaching for over 25 years at the—historic for comics—School of Visual Arts in NYC in addition to fine art at other great institutions on the East Coast, and have created a Visual Narrative Art program at Roski, in collaboration with the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art opening across the street, and with the Lucas funded School of Cinematic Arts near us on campus.  With nine classes in place, and over 100 students, and many more to come, this is becoming an established program unlike any at another American research university.  Disney of course created Cal Arts, coming from educating his animators from the early days of his studio (a USC professor was one of the early teachers there, teaching film—and humor—theory!), but since the animation program is more of a tech nuts and bolts pipeline to the studios. Our program teaches students to “think like artists” outside of the box, in comics, illustration, and other narrative art, and our teachers keep it real for their own comics and art, but all have day jobs working for the industry in animation and more…. I’m proud of pioneering this program (and had to fight all the way to do this at a place where the old guard thinks that “comics aren’t art” and not wanting to become “a vocational school”), but after teaching many thousands of students comics and illustration in my 30+ years I also have been an exhibiting artist who teaches fine art, know from my students professional success how they too can make an impact.   While I’m no Disney, I’m proud of my successful exhibition career as a “fine artist”, my roots (and still making graphic novels and editing them!) and very proud of my career teaching storytelling through visual mediums—hopefully practicing what I preach making emotive and warm painterly paintings that also tell stories—and like in this show, “talk to other paintings” like panels in a comic, building if not an empire, at least a teaching one of many happy students and alumni making the world a better place in many ways beyond my own personal visions.