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In Recognition of a Renaissance Man

Alice Davis and Andreas Deja reflect on the masterful Marc Davis.

Marc Davis flanked by his ladies, Maleficent and Cruella. ©Disney.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a corner of the world where names like Maleficent, Tinker Bell and Cruella De Vil don’t elicit a smile of recognition.  They’ve appeared everywhere from movie theatres to theme parks, television shows to video games and their likenesses adorn lunchboxes, toothbrushes and t-shirts to name but a few.  Undeniably, they are icons…yet the average person on the street would most likely say “Disney” if asked to identify the person responsible for their visual appeal.

Thankfully, an important distinction is finally being made.

For these are the creations of the late, great Marc Davis, an incredibly versatile artist whom Walt Disney aptly dubbed his “Renaissance Man.”  During their decades of collaboration, Disney entrusted Davis with not only designing and animating lead characters in Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty, but also developing attractions for Disneyland and the New York World’s Fair.  The Carousel of Progress, Pirates of the Caribbean and Enchanted Tiki Room were shaped by his sense of humor and flair for storytelling.  And when he wasn’t channeling his considerable creativity into those projects, Davis found the time to explore fine art during his off-hours.

“He was really what you would call, in the most positive way, a compulsive artist who wanted to try it all,” animator Andreas Deja says of his mentor.  “The pieces he created outside the studio are absolutely striking.  There are watercolors and oil paintings and prints and it just goes on and on.”

Marc and Alice Davis on their honeymoon, 1958. Courtesy of the Alice Davis Collection.

Amazingly, most of the modern art Davis created in his lifetime was kept behind closed doors.  “He would never sell it or show it to anybody because he was true to Walt,” wife Alice Davis explains with understandable pride.  Early in his career, her husband had made a promise that he was determined to keep.  “He would do all his ‘professional’ art for Walt.  After Walt passed away, he had one show – one gallery show – before he passed away.”

Disney Editions’ new book on Marc Davis.

Through her ongoing efforts, more and more of Davis’ work is now coming to light, celebrating the full extent of his contributions to the Disney brand along with his achievements as a fine artist.  Last year, San Francisco’s Disney Family Museum mounted an exhibition focused on Davis’ “Leading Ladies” which ran for six months.  Co-curated by Deja, himself a legendary animator for his work on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the show offered a look at the designs that helped make Davis’ aforementioned starlets household names.  The Disney Editions hardcover book entitled Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man goes a step further, pulling back the curtain on the full breadth of the artist’s varied works.  Among its 208 pages are stunning examples of his animation drawings, Imagineering concept art, anecdotes from industry luminaries and countless never-before-seen paintings and illustrations from the private collection his wife lovingly maintains.

“Walt, before he died, wanted the studio to make a book on Marc and the different things he was able to do,” Mrs. Davis says from her California home.  “I think Marc would be overjoyed because at the studio, people knew that Walt called him a Renaissance Man, but it has never been revealed to the public before.  So this is the first time the public is hearing about it.”

This is also the first time the public is seeing the characters Davis dreamed up for Chanticleer, a barnyard-set animated film the studio ultimately abandoned.  Renaissance Man features many such gems, including a series of stained glass windows he had designed for a church in the Midwest and excerpts from an unpublished book.  As Mrs. Davis explains, “it was a magnificent book called The Anatomy of Motion and he’d spent nineteen-some-odd years writing it.  Marc was at the end of his life, and one of the editors destroyed all but a few pages of the book.  All the doctors and all the medical schools had wanted a copy of it.  It’s a sad thing.”

Davis’ visual development art of Maleficent, from the Mike Glad Collection. ©Disney.

Up and Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter, who contributes to the chapter focused on Davis’ character animation, notes that his “easygoing manner meant that he got along with almost everyone, even those with a reputation for being difficult.”  Deja agrees wholeheartedly.  “Marc was very soft-spoken,” he recalls.  “I never really saw him get really, really angry or really, really excited, even though those feelings were there.  Under his calm demeanor, there really was a man of strong opinions.  He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like.  Each time you asked about something, whether it was your own work or a project you were working on, he would tell you in his calm way what he really thought.  He wouldn’t sugarcoat it.”

Case in point: the color of Maleficent’s cloak.  Though he’d originally planned for the villainess’ costume to feature red accents to evoke flames, Sleeping Beauty background painter and color stylist Eyvind Earle felt a purple interior would better suit the picture’s color scheme.  “He did talk about that to me,” Deja says with a chuckle, “and he wasn’t thrilled when the color was changed.  He always saw it as kind of black and red flames, you know?  He liked the idea of flames…but he just couldn’t convince Earle.  I think over the years in seeing the movie several times he got used to it but each time Marc would do a fan drawing for somebody, he would always paint it black and red.”

Dressed to Kill, 1950. Courtesy of the Alice Davis Collection.

In the privacy of his home studio, however, there was no need for compromise.  Paintings like 1950’s Dressed To Kill, which features a matador twirling his cape amidst a geometric landscape, sees Davis combine bold primary colors with dynamic composition to great dramatic effect.  “He had a period where he enjoyed learning all about the bull fights and did drawings of the fighters,” Mrs. Davis recalls.  Equally vivid are the works inspired by the couple’s visits to Papua New Guinea, Australia and Fiji in the 1970s.  They relished immersing themselves in the traditions of indigenous cultures hidden away from the modern world, and his work captures their visits in passionate detail.

Marc and Alice had similar interests from the start of their relationship, when they first crossed paths at the Chouinard Art Institute in 1947.  He was teaching the art form she had hoped to pursue professionally, but since women were not permitted to study animation, she was redirected towards costume design and managed to attend his evening classes on the side.  “His Animation Drawing course helped me more in costume design than anything I ever did,” she notes, while adding that she saw him “strictly from the standpoint of a teacher.”  When, years later, he reached out to ask her to construct a dress for visual reference on Sleeping Beauty, a friendship formed.  The duo tied the knot in 1956 and she went on to work with Walt Disney as one of the first female Imagineers, creating costumes for It’s A Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean.  “Marc loved working for Walt and I loved working for Walt too.  He was one of the best.  He was the best, Walt.”

Queequeg Pursuing Moby Dick, 1956. Courtesy of the Alice Davis Collection.

Marc Davis passed away in 2000 having helped secure the legacy of the Disney Studios.  To date, he is still best remembered as a member of Walt’s Nine Old Men.  “He loved what he was doing,” Mrs. Davis says, “but he also wanted to be a fine artist.”  As Renaissance Man proves, he accomplished that goal, leaving us with more of his work to enjoy than we’d even realized existed.  Mrs. Davis hopes to see a comprehensive exhibition mounted in the days ahead to bring the rest of his creations to a public increasingly aware of his particular brand of magic.  As she eloquently puts it, “he was a very unique person.  I don’t think there’ll ever be another one like him.”

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Special thanks to Alice Davis, Andreas Deja and Michael Labrie.  Marc Davis: Walt Disney’s Renaissance Man is available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com/Marc-Davis-Disneys-Renaissance-Editions/dp/1423184181.  Andreas Deja’s blog can be found at http://andreasdeja.blogspot.com.  For more information on the Disney Family Museum, visit www.waltdisney.org.

James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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