Frieze New York 2024
Steamboat Willie, 2024 72 × 60 inches
Steamboat Willie, 2024
72 × 60 inches

When Steamboat Willie, the classic animated short by Walt Disney from 1928 finally went into the public domain on January 1, 2024, almost 95 years after its original release, I felt I had to paint this image as I love Mickey Mouse and all things Disney, and now I could paint him without fear of being sued—and it was a historical moment for when a famous character that influenced the world became the property of the people rather than the company that has kept him captive!  I wanted to make the “best” Steamboat Willie image as soon as I could, as also I imagine legions of artists all clamoring to take on the great mouse.  As an artist who great up with appropriation as a post-modern concept, coming from Duchamp and extending all the way to contemporary times, I have painted many popular figures and images that have influenced me and my ideology for life in my paintings, drawings, and narratives.  I always have hoped that the satire laws in America save me from copyright issues—MAD magazine was able to lampoon so many films, tv shows, and pop culture references because of this—they acknowledge the source of what it is they are satirizing, not pretending they “invented” the source content (this would be plagiarism) but rather riffing on the original, changing it to make a commentary and entertainment in a different medium.  How an image is different than the photo is how I account for this in my practice—I’m not trying to emulate exactly the source image—these are oil paintings or drawings in ink and color by hand.  Picasso would say if you drew a circle without an aid of a compass, how it is not like a perfect circle is what is the mark of the artist—how my paintings aren’t like the original photo/source is what is “me” about the resultant image.  Also, as my paintings circulate in the fine art world and not popular media culture, they are in a different context—for the body of work that I have been creating since 2000, “My American Dream,” these images constitute icons and allegories, people and parts of culture that have influenced me and my world view optimistically for what can be truly “great” about America, helping to form the ideology that has inspired myself and my husband to live happily in our life, and hopefully also, in the most positive of ways, inspire the “American Dream” for many peoples here and across the earth.

I listened to the best Disney biography, (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler), while painting this picture (for the second or third time!), and again marveled at the amazing career of Disney, truly an embodiment of the American Dream, for whom Mickey was his like minded familiar avatar.  Coming from nothing, but wanting to be a great cartoonist, then animator, then artist to corporate businessman with a dream, I was reminded how Disney early on in my childhood was my hero for being able to productively influence culture with his art.  I too was a child cartoonist, drawing for the school papers from kindergarten through the day of being the campus cartoonist in my undergrad years at Brown, to where I am today as a fine artist and professor, creating an entire narrative art program at the University of California (in collaboration with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art opening across from USC).  I still teach and love comics (and have taught many successful cartoonists and animators in addition to fine artists), and my installations of art are like panels in a comic, with each painting or drawing “talking to one another” in non-linear narratives that constitute my uber narrative of My American Dream.  Unlike the seminal pop art painting of Mickey and Donald Duck by Roy Lichtenstein “Look Mickey” from 1961, which was more a cold “readymade” bringing the “low” “commercial comic art” into “high” fine art realm, I wanted to bring warmth and feeling, a painterly other world akin to the American Modernist spirit of “regionalist” art and California landscape painting of the time that inspired the look and art of the original seminal Disney animation. I want to reanimate Mickey, making this almost 100-year-old cartoon “alive” again, by adding my own version of color (also being influenced by the American modernism of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and paintings from the 20’s and 30’s that hyper essentialized landscape forms of reginal Americana), looking at references of “real” steamboats, landscapes and water, to influence the color and texture of the scene, while staying true to the iconic historical design of the original.  I selected the frame from the opening sequence that seemed the most balanced and optimistic, the one that showed the design of Mickey the best along with his character, where his optimism and confidence seemed in play with his own aspirations, suturing into the character much as Disney would animating and voicing his famous mouse, living along in this dream and pursuit to be the best he can be and bring about hope for the future for millions.

I grew up with Disney, as did we all for generations, and he and his creations and company have been a transformative influence on global culture and media, philosophy of life brought on by allegory and the power of the cartoon to make relatable deep feelings and ideas.  Although of course there was animation before Walt, what he did, still in those pioneering days, is to make “character animation”—not quite like the broad slapstick of base humor that the Fleisher Brothers were doing with Felix the Cat and Betty Boop and the other creators of cartoon shorts in those days, but to make humorous narratives based on the personality, warmth of the fully rendered (in both form and content) characters themselves.  The personalities of characters from other animators and companies before this were flat and “2D”, and rubbery—stock personalities based on broad traits—more like clowns than real individuals—and their bodies would extend and move without gravity and move and pull like bouncing taffy—not based on the armatures of a skeleton of a figure that was fully grounded on earth.  Disney realized it was about the personalities of the characters that were important, how an audience cared about them as anthropomorphized “people”, and to have their actions follow their desires and interests, their movement based on more volumetric, weighed beings that would move according to their moods and personalities.  This made a huge difference, as suddenly cartoons went from being slapstick joke translations of newspaper strips and the like to being other dream like worlds of possibilities, with fully rounded out (in every way) characters that had feelings and emotions, desires and motivations in stories that were allegorical and relatable—just like the characters—to the human beings transported into the Disney realm of imagination.

With Steamboat Willie, the other, historical, and super significant invention was that it was the first sound cartoon!  People didn’t think it could be possible, or really enhance what was seen as a superfluous medium (the cartoon short that played before the main feature in a roundup of entertainment for people in the theater in the days before television) but Disney, after seeing the Jazz Singer, knew that he had to pursue his dream and goal to be the best, most successful animator in America, and invested his whole company (and life, taking out mortgages of his homes, etc.!) to make his dream come true.  Disney and his musicians were able to devise a system (like the “bouncing ball” for singalongs) of how his musicians would be able to time accordingly to the cartoon, and after much time, effort, and money, was able to pull off the historical masterpiece that is Steamboat Willie, that became a wild sensation throughout the world and succeeded to astound audiences elevating Disney to be the ultimate master of his craft and he and his alter ego Mickey Mouse to become two of the most famous people in Hollywood!

Mickey Mouse started as a plucky rascal before he became a more benign hero.  Mickey was the second star for Disney (after Oswald the Rabbit was taken from him by his previous backer), co-created by his collaborator Ub Iwerks, an animator that had been with Disney before they were animators together, working for an advertising agency/production company in Kansas City. With an ingenious design that influenced the look of iconic characters (including for anime and manga in Japan to the present day), with a big forehead, big eyes, small body, etc, looking like a “big baby” that is more relatable to people because of its essentialized forms and triggering something in humans to care for the character like they would their own child, Mickey Mouse quickly was beloved by millions the world over.  For this, his third short feature, Mickey was a bit less the rascal that he was in Plane Crazy and the Gallopin’ Gaucho, his first two, but still the everyman, based on Disney’s heroes Charlie Chaplin and the heroism of Errol Flynn.  In the short, inspired by the silent start Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (also 1928), Mickey is seen first driving the boat, from which this scene is taken, before he is discovered by the real captain, Mickey’s nemesis Peg Leg Pete, who throws him aside, as they pick up livestock from a dock and then Minnie Mouse, when Mickey and Minnie begin a cartoon chorus of “Turkey in the Straw” “playing” the various animals to the tune (rather sadistically) before being discovered once again by Captain Pete, who makes Mickey peel potatoes the chagrin of the boat’s parrot, ending the short.  While the scenario doesn’t seem to warrant the brilliance and masterpiece status that it has, the energy of the animation is amazing, the sounds and music were something that had never been heard from by audiences coming from a cartoon, and the everyman heroism of Mickey—in the time of the Great Depression—was an antidote and avatar for people the world over to keep hope and life in their strides of the everyday, influencing Americans to keep hope alive when it was most needed.