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Disneyland: Serious . . . and Goofy : Art: 'A Brush With Disney' at Bowers looks at the work of Herbert Dickens Ryman, whose visions for theme parks altered the landscape worldwide.

April 10, 1993|QUENDRITH JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — The year was 1938, and Walt Disney knew he'd seen something special when he caught a glimpse of the work of an MGM storyboard artist named Herbert Dickens Ryman at a Los Angeles gallery show.

Ryman, who had been MGM's resident sketch artist on such projects as "Tugboat Annie" and "The Good Earth," had had his first gallery show the previous year in New York; it was a two-man show with another up-and-coming artist, Andrew Wyeth.

Lucky for Disney, Ryman had just returned from a trip around the world and was between jobs when the renowned animator came to look at his paintings. The story goes that Disney offered him a job on the spot.

And while Ryman would come on board from 1938 to 1946 as an illustrator for such feature-length classics as "Fantasia" and "Dumbo," for which he served as art director, there was a larger project waiting in the wings for him: Disneyland.

Thus began the long association between Disney and Herb Ryman, a fine artist who never drew a single cartoon character but became one of the most important artists in the legendary Disney roster, based on his seminal drawings not only for Disneyland, but also for Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disney, and for Euro Disney, the last project he worked on before his death in February, 1989.

"A Brush With Disney: The Art of Herbert Dickens Ryman," which will be on display through May 2 at Santa Ana's Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, looks at some of the conceptual renderings for Disney's theme parks as well as a rare glimpse of Ryman's personal work.

Also included in the exhibit are watercolors and paintings from his 1949 travels with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a behind-the-scenes sketch artist on the circus train, as well as sketches from his two trips around the world.

This unusual show was curated for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and was on display there to warm reviews before opening at the Bowers.

"It did very well at the Corcoran," said Bowers Director Patricia House. "But we thought it would do better in its own back yard."

Martin A. Sklar, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, credited Ryman with creating not just the look but "the feel of Disneyland" when he visited the show.

"I'm using perhaps all my talent to develop and create an idea," artist Ryman once said. "Sometimes my work is seen anonymously or as a group effort such as at Disneyland."

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Few people realize that even after Walt Disney's death in 1966, Ryman continued to work up theme park plans for Disney's personal spin-off company WED (Walter Elias Disney Inc.), which later changed its name to Walt Disney Imagineering.

Although Ryman's preliminary 1953 sketch of Disneyland managed to land the $17 million in original seed money from private sources for the park, which opened in 1955, his more elaborate 1967 design for Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World cost $17 million by itself.

Sketches of the "Tomorrowland Entrance," and "Cinderella's Castle" hang in the show alongside later drawings for the World Bazaar at Tokyo Disneyland and the unfinished "Castle From Main Street" for Euro Disney.

"People think Walt had his cartoon studio design Disneyland and had a cartoonist draw it," House said. "They are surprised that someone of a more serious artistic bent developed this. And I think it's important to show this work, because Disneyland is definitely part of Orange County culture."

Becoming part of the landscape is exactly what Walt Disney hoped to achieve with Ryman's help, recalls Lucille Ryman-Carroll, the artist's 87-year-old sister.

"Herbie and Walt seemed to be on the same plane. They would work together. That's why he could visualize Walt's ideas," she said.

Ryman-Carroll keeps her brother's legacy alive with the Herb Ryman Living Masters Program, a foundation that nurtures young artists.

"Everybody told Mother his two sisters would have to support him because artists don't make a living." Ryman-Carroll confessed. "Little did we know how successful he would be."

"A Brush With Disney: The Art of Herbert Dickens Ryman" continues through May 2 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 9 p.m. on Thursday nights only. Admission is $4.50 for adults; $3 for students and seniors; $1.50 for children 5-12. (714) 567-3600. To find out more about the Herb Ryman Living Masters Program, call (213) 687-7083.

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