"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney
Sunday, October 29, 2023
Friday, March 24, 2023
As Pinocchio’s production continued through 1938 and 1939, Walt Disney conducted meetings for Fantasia and Bambi. Dick Kelsey would return as an art director and layout artist on both films. For Fantasia, Kelsey tackled the “Rite of Spring” segment of the film – an animated, musical depiction of Earth’s cataclysmic beginnings. This cinematic tour de force showcases not only some of the film’s best animation, but also exquisite art direction and layout design by John Hubley, Dick Kelsey, and McLaren Stewart. These three artists no doubt struggled to stage a prehistoric Earth, and in doing so, sought advice from scholarly paleontologists. “So intense became this paleontological hunger,” Hubley once shared, “that contact with museums and Ph.D.s was established.”42 The result of their determination was well worth it, and for nearly thirty minutes of the film, the audience is transported to a time where Earth is anything but safe, a massive sphere forged from the fires of volcanoes, torrential floods, earthquakes, and not to mention lurking with dangers in the forms of giant lizards.
Aside from the storyline, animation, and musical timing of “The Rite of Spring,” one must not discount the importance of color and mood as utilized by the capable hands of Kelsey and his colleagues. Its strong art direction is especially apparent during transitional points of the film when color plays on color, and darkness focuses light. From the outer limits of deep space at the segment’s introduction, feelings imparted to the viewer are wonder and anticipation accented by vibrant shooting stars and shimmering cosmic dust dancing across a blanket of black and blue. The sharp contrast of Earth’s warm colors covering its volcanic surface erupt with heat, and the intensity of light emitted from spewing deep red lava set against a sky of ash is effective.
As the camera submerges the audience in a prehistoric sea, the mood instantly cools with the shades of deep blue and purple, setting the stage for Disney’s meditation on the evolutionary process. When the creatures of the deep emerge from gray waters painted against a jaundiced sky, the contrast between light and dark is at its greatest parity. This setting evokes uneasiness, yet the use of yellow in the background tempts the dark jungle’s hidden inhabitants to stir along the shoreline. Creatures silhouetted against the yellow background belong to dinosaurs, and their presence alone moves the piece in a new direction. It is here that “director Bill Roberts, layout artist Dick Kelsey, and animators Don Patterson and Art Palmer,” elaborates animation historian John Culhane, “fashioned a whole sequence around the consonance of the swooping action of Pterodactyls and swooping sounds in the Stravinsky score.”43
The play on shadows and the reflection of light along the vertebrae and outlines of prehistoric figures only adds to the mystery, and the stately wildlife shrouded within dark greens colors of the jungle floor, under the gradual change of a stormy blue sky, seems to hint at eminent danger. A storm rages not only with the presence of rain and lightning, but with the intense musical introduction of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The animation of Woolie Reitherman’s Stegosaurus and T-Rex elevates this segment of Fantasia to a stately, ferocious interpretation of nature’s perpetual struggle. “When we first started on ‘The Rite of Spring,’” Kelsey once explained, “it was the general consensus that it was to be very dark and moody, but it appeared that as it progressed and they began to evaluate the animation more highly, they gradually eliminated the mood and replaced it with clarity of action.”44
In the final moments of “The Rite of Spring,” blazing reds and oranges surround the dinosaurs on their final trek toward extinction. The presence of a white-hot sun consumes the creatures with heat, and the use of reflected light on the desert’s surface, coupled with grit-laden sandy hazes, is quite effective. As an eclipse of the sun sustains the fiery red color of the sky, the animation intensifies with an onslaught of earthquakes. Flaming shades of red soon turn blue-violet as massive ocean waves cool the baked surface of the Earth. As the cycle of art brilliantly designed by the art directors comes full circle, the color and mood return to that of its introduction, placing its audience within deep space’s fitful silence.
Though these two films were animated masterpieces, Pinocchio and Fantasia failed to produce the revenue Walt Disney hoped for. Blame, however, did not fall on the shoulders of Disney or the artists themselves, but mostly with the war that had engulfed Europe. As Nazi-controlled Germany invaded France in 1940 and Hitler’s blitzkrieg tore across Europe, the market for moviegoers across the seas quickly crumbled, and financial aftershocks were significantly felt at Walt Disney’s new studio in Burbank, California. By Pinocchio’s release in February of 1940, the script for Dumbo (1941) was being developed, and by the release of Fantasia’s in November of the same year, the production schedule of Disney’s fourth film was moving along at a record pace.
Dumbo has been noted time and time again for its creatively refreshing pacing and solid story. A plot concerning a miniature elephant (with well-endowed earlobes) learning how to fly could not have been more markedly different from its predecessors’ subject matters, both in design and storytelling. The perfection of technical detail poured into Pinocchio did not carry over into Dumbo, but the quality of its animated emotionality certainly did not dip. “Everybody working on it was such a great pro,” shares Disney animator Eric Goldberg. “And by being that strong in all of their choices; in their layout choices; in their design choices; and their animation choices, it makes what you could conceive as a very small film, very, very powerful.”45 Dick Kelsey would again return as an art director and layout artist on the film, and thus be considered one of the Dumbo pros.
The sequences to which Kelsey lent his talents bring to life the story of the young pachyderm are some of the most “cartoony” and powerful contained within the film. His work on action-packed and bold sequences in Pinocchio and Fantasia proved Kelsey could handle the staging aspects of such challenging scenes ably. These films, especially Fantasia, reveal Kelsey’s skill at staging scenes where nature’s wrath is portrayed. In Pinocchio’s case, it was the sea, whereas in “The Rite of Spring,” it was the forging of the Earth. With Dumbo, Kelsey’s versatility of design shows in both realistic and cartoon-like approaches to scenes, revealing his growth and adaptation to the animated process.
Two Dumbo sequences benefitting from Kelsey’s touch can be counted as two of the most memorable in the film, acting as prime examples of his artistic versatility. Existing draft notes, provided by Hans Perk’s A. Film L.A. blog, reveal that Dick Kelsey had a lot to do with almost all of the Casey Junior sequences. More specifically, Kelsey is credited as the layout artist for the entire train car animal-loading sequence as well as the train’s exaggerated twists and turns through the tunnels of rolling hills. The sequence entitled “Sad Casey,” with the train slowly pulling its cars through the rain, was also laid out by Kelsey. Interestingly enough, a 1945 Santa Barbara News Press article went as far as to boast that the circus train was “Dick’s idea!”46
Without a doubt, one of the many gifts Dumbo bestows to the audience is the Casey Junior vignette. From the moment the camera descends upon the train’s Florida quarters in the opening shot, the vibrant colors from the film’s opening credits are used again to bring the hustling and bustling world of the circus to visual life. Kelsey’s scene layout, groundwork, and supervision of difficult panning shots of the train’s length and surrounding environment are inspiring, and considerably daunting. Working left to right, beginning with the lovable, animated locomotive itself, the audience is treated to a sweeping shot of the train and its individually designed cars. Each train car design is singular, as if each car was designed for specific animals. Whether it is a water-filled car housing a mother hippo and her baby, or a decorative design of the gorillas’ caged car, the staging of each animal-loading scene is varied and visually pleasing.
The setting that serves as a backdrop to the loading of the animals must not be discounted as well, and in a way allowed Kelsey to inject stylistically Californian elements. The influence of the Spanish Colonial Revival art and design of Kelsey’s hometown, San Diego, was heavily utilized for the construction of the 1915 Panama- California Exposition. Kelsey’s exposure to this style while growing up in Southern California inevitably found its way into his art, especially during his training and teaching career in Santa Barbara. Luckily, the state of Florida, where Dumbo takes place, was also touched by the Spanish Colonial Movement near the turn of the 20th century, which could easily be the time period of the story. Several solid structures looming in the background of the train-loading sequence definitely portray hints of a Spanish Colonial influence in their red-colored roof, white solid structure, and curved-archway designs. They were no doubt designs Kelsey was familiar with and happy to include in the film.
As soon as Casey Junior departs from the loading area, the layout morphs into that of rocky structures and rolling hills painted in warm, earthy colors. The staging of the train’s twists and turns are cleverly executed using camera pans and lightly muted shadows. Shortly after its departure, the train disappears behind a massive hill, reappearing when the shadow of the locomotive dances across the hill’s anterior side. The following circus train shot is certainly one of the most memorable, as it winds in and out and over and under hills in what looks very much like a landscape taken directly from a children’s storybook illustration. The curving path of the railroad track along hills of green and scattered palm trees disappears into a horizon that bends with the shape of the Earth.
The following sequence casts the candy colors of the circus into darkness and rain, and the lush colors of the Earth into puddles of mud. As Casey Junior comes to a halt in preparation for the unloading of its hefty freight, including the circus tent, one of Kelsey’s boldest, yet subtlest, layout sequences contributed to a Disney film commences.
The “Roustabouts” sequence of Dumbo is visually communicative and emotionally moving for a variety of reasons, including its initial storyboard work, background paintings, and finally, incredible animation. Dick Kelsey’s art direction and layout work serve as the skeletal structure of the sequence and are essential to the scene’s heft. The rapid pace of character and effects animation is sharp and reads well against the dark colored backgrounds of Kelsey’s layouts. Little Dumbo seems lost among the hustling men and his fellow elephants, yet manages to stand out the most in the mélange of pelting rain, mired earth, and cloudy sky. The roustabouts themselves seem almost one with the darkness; swift shadows of the night effortlessly working to raise the tent before morning light. Subtle detail easily taken for granted, such as the tent’s open canvas seams, the circular-waved mud patterns, the suggestive placement of the train cars and tent poles, and even the stormy sky all warrant investigation. Kelsey’s staging is not forced or prominent, and takes a backseat to the animation, but only to cleverly accent it. Dumbo revealed Dick Kelsey’s able skill at stage supervision, augmenting his already impressive animative adroitness.
By the time Disney began initial story work on Dumbo in early 1940, relocation to the new Burbank studio was a mere few months away. Production on Bambi crawled along as delays, due to challenges in staging the forest animal’s animation, in particular, the realistic locomotion of deer, were mounting. In-depth training courses were conducted, and wildlife experts were brought on studio grounds to aide animators in developing the template.
Beautiful conceptual art created by watercolor artist Tyrus Wong served as the film’s inspiration and set the standard for artistic design. From there, it was up to art directors, like Kelsey, not only to utilize Wong’s preliminary work in executing appropriate staging for key scenes, but to incorporate the mood and feel of his inspirational watercolors into the final film.
Though no written documentation concerning Kelsey’s contributions to Bambican be located, it is no great leap to assume that Kelsey continued to work as a layout artist and/or color stylist given the prior films in his repertoire. As animation historian J.B. Kaufman has stated, “A big part of the problem is that term ‘art director.’ On a live-action film the function of an ‘art director’ is more or less quantifiable…in animation it gets a lot more nebulous.”47 A January 1943 Santa Barbara News-Press article stated Kelsey “created the forest-fire background in the Disney picture Bambi.”48 This piece of the puzzle may hold some merit, as Tyrus Wong attests to the article’s veracity. “Dick Kelsey did work on Bambi and it appears he did paint some background paintings for that film at one point,” conveyed Fox Carney, Research Manager of Disney’s Animation Research Library. “This was according to Tyrus Wong – the main artist credited…with the look of Bambi. Alas, the artists did not sign the backs of their works at the time – even if only to document who painted what. So we don’t have any physical evidence in our facility.”49 Steven M. Vagnini of the Walt Disney Archives also confirmed that “after an exhaustive search through our Bambi historical and production materials, we have not been able to find information on Dick Kelsey.”50
Existing visual development art completed in watercolor, mixed with dry brush and pastel for the “Little April Shower” sequence, feels like Kelsey’s handiwork as the approach is somewhat similar to the style he would utilize in the late ‘40s. Veteran animator and Director of Animation on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Richard Williams, shared briefly, “I know nothing else about him [Kelsey’s work at Disney] other than he designed the raindrop sequence in Bambi. Wonderful.”51 Williams’ claim should not go unwarranted given his personal connection to Kelsey, which is recounted in the introduction of the book, The Animator’s Survival Kit (2002). In fact, this piece of the puzzle seems to make sense when considering Kelsey’s work on similar sequences in prior Disney films, and Kelsey’s influence on the “Trees” segment of the 1948 animated- packaged film, Melody Time. However, with little evidence, and no substantive proof, this area of Kelsey’s career at Disney remains a mystery, hidden within the hundreds of pieces of conceptual art.
42 John Culhane, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, (New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1983), 120.
43 Ibid., 115.
44 Ibid., 121.
45 Goldberg, Eric, "Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo," Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition, Audio clip of Eric Goldberg, Blu-ray.
46 Paulding, Litti. "About People You Know." Santa Barbara News-Press, sec. Town Chatter, February 18, 1945.
47 J.B. Kaufman, e-mail message to author, November 7, 2012.
48 "Lieut. R.I. Kelsey Creates Disney Backgrounds." Santa Barbara News-Press, January 7, 1943.
49 Fox Carney, e-mail message to author, December 3, 2012.
50 Steven M. Vagnini, e-mail message to author, January 17, 2013.
51 Richard Williams, e-mail message to author, February
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
In late December of 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made its world premiere, and changed the way those silly little films called ‘cartoons’ were perceived by the mass populace. Snow White’s artistic triumph resulted from Disney’s patience, storytelling, and the refinement of his animators’ skills throughout the twenties and thirties. Kelsey’s former student Ward Kimball had been hired at the Studio three years prior, and contributed to sequences within Disney’s revolutionary tour de force.
The revenue Disney earned from the success of Snow White would spread to many areas of the organization, including into planning for a new and improved studio in the Burbank area to work on Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942) (Pinocchio was chosen to become next in line during the same month of Snow White’s release).[i] Pinocchio’s special effects and stylized approach would take animation to new heights, and Disney no doubt wanted the best artists available to assist in making this vision a reality. One of the biggest influences on the film’s tonal style was illustrator of children’s books Gustaf Tenggren. Tenggren’s inspirational and conceptual art for Snow White, along with contributions tendered by many other artists, like Albert Hurter, helped to establish the look and feel of the film. Additional artists brought on for Pinocchio carried with them skills obtained from the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Campbell Grant was assigned to character design, and none other than Richmond “Dick” Kelsey to art direction, with a recommendation from former student Ward Kimball.[ii]
Dick Kelsey’s initiation into the Walt Disney Studio system consisted of art direction and layout work on Pinocchio. As one of the art directors on the film, he worked closely with the directors, assisting in the establishment of the overall mood, staging, and color of specific scenes. The concept of art direction and layout essentially is similar to craftsmanship needed to construct staging elements for a theatrical production. Lighting is of the utmost importance, for through it an audience can detect mood and begin to sense in what direction the action will move. With action-staging in mind, art direction and layout artists are also responsible for characters’ paths of motion across a scene or background. The background itself is sketched initially by the layout artist and sent to the background department for color rendering. In the end, artists like Kelsey ensure that both the presence of animation and the atmosphere surrounding it work in concert. Legendary Disney storywriter and then head of the Model Department Joe Grant stated, “Kelsey had done some very fine things, he would work out with the directors.”[iii]
While considering Kelsey’s estimable aptitude for management of these nuanced facets of the Disney animation process, it is important to remember his art training did not directly prepare him for intricacies required of animation. The style he brought to the Walt Disney Studio was that of fine art, which happened to be the exact flair with which Walt Disney desired to imbue his animated features. It is arguable, however, that Kelsey’s expertise in woodblock printing served as a tool with unique advantages for animators. “Since woodblock printing lends itself to large areas of solid color on the printed paper, it is therefore logical that the student training would lend itself to the production of the stillframes used in animated movies, those stillframes being likewise composed of large areas of solid color.”[iv]
Through Pinocchio’s episodic and random adventures, Dick Kelsey effectively instilled specific sequences with inspiring, and at times deliciously dark, vibrancy. Scenes taking place on Pleasure Island for instance, can be downright terrifying, evoking feelings of doom buried just below a superficially thin guise of cotton candy jollity.
“The layout drawings for Pinocchio were made with great attention to detail,” noted author Christopher Finch. “Often more than one artist worked on a single layout, the first making an outline drawing, and another adding the tonal rendering.”[v] Alongside fellow art director Al Zinnen, Kelsey created the blueprint for scenes where the young boys wreak havoc on this carnival land of mischief and horror.[vi]
In existing layouts drawn in graphite, one finds illustrations depicting paint-spattered walls, scattered remains of broken furniture, piles of bricks, and immense wooden statues of Indian chiefs grasping cigar boxes. The artists go as far as to place a portrait of the Mona Lisa amongst rubble, only for Lampwick to strike a match against the painting’s inscrutably smiling face. It is interesting to note some of the buildings in specific scenes have a Spanish Colonial style, perhaps nodding at Kelsey’s influence. The animation eventually overlapping Kelsey and Zinnen’s stage designs worked seamlessly, painting a world where the young openly rebel against their mothers, soon crying out for those maternal protectors.
Preceding the terrifying scene wherein Lampwick transforms into a donkey, the sequence involving Jiminy Cricket’s shocking discovery of a Coachman loading boys-turned-jackasses into wooden crates is equally unsettling. This brief sequence was staged entirely by Dick Kelsey, and its claustrophobic atmosphere illustrates escape is indeed futile.[vii] Jiminy emerges from underneath a crack in a massive wooden door to spy a dock nestled at the base of a mountainous wall of stone. Wooden crates clustered wall-to-wall wait to be filled while a ferry tethered to the pier idly floats until loading. Cargo signs reading, “SOLD TO THE SALT MINES,” along with articles of boy’s clothes strewn about the periphery, convey the youths’ dire situation brilliantly.
Dick Kelsey not only teams up with Al Zinnen once again on the sequences involving Pinocchio’s and Jiminy’s escape from Pleasure Island and their return home to Geppetto’s workshop, but serves as color supervisor on both as well.[viii] All of the island scenes take place at night, and continue to do so upon the duo’s escape. Twinkling stars cast amongst the vast blue darkness of the night sky engender feelings of loneliness and desolation, as do rounded dark mountain formations surrounding the island. All intimate a far cry from comfort, great distances from the warm, wooden colors of the puppet master’s cottage. As desolate as the scene may be, its beauty cannot be denied, an endless sea looming, mirroring the stars above.
The scenes that follow emphasize feelings of hopelessness, and the village’s barrenness reveals the puppet and cricket are its only inhabitants. Kelsey and Zinnen successfully create an environment where Pinocchio appears lost in a place that should bring him comfort while the world continues to sleep. The interior workings of Geppetto’s abandoned cottage are woven with cobwebs, indicating its owner has been gone for quite some time. The two art directors continue this progression from above, from chimney tops, as the Blue Fairy (in the form of a dove) delivers a letter revealing Geppetto’s whereabouts. Kelsey’s choice of gold for the letter’s emblazoned text symbolizes hope, and contrasts with the cold mood of the night. The sequence’s most impressive layout design is that of the village’s cobbled street shown at that segment’s conclusion. As Pinocchio and Jiminy race towards the sea along stone sidewalks, the audience gets fleeting glimpses of the quaint shops that line the village street. It is here Kelsey and Zinnen pay homage to Tenggren’s inspirational paintings, in the village’s mood and atmosphere.
As one can surmise, Dick Kelsey’s contributions to Pinocchio were considerable, and his art direction of aquatic scenes involving Monstro the Whale clearly encompass some of Pinocchio’s paramount achievements. In addition to Pleasure Island and the escape sequence, Kelsey’s role as color supervisor on all underwater scenes, along with chases involving the whale in the film’s grand finale, could arguably be his greatest contribution (Kelsey also color supervised a later-deleted sequence where Geppetto is swallowed by Monstro).[ix]
As the camera plunges downward through many leagues to the ocean’s floor, the audience witnesses a world bursting with contrast – not only in color, but in detail as well. Three-quarters of Pinocchio takes place on land, so this drastic scenery change truly coaxes effervescence from the aquatic denizens inhabiting the depths. The supervisor’s color choices are inspired and assist in bringing out the layers and depth of this colorful abyss. His color palette, not limited to the cool shades of blue, green, and purple, brings a delectable feast of reds and oranges and pinks to pulsing life. The earthy and smooth texture of the sea’s sandy bed, along with the algae-laden, pocked surfaces of resting rocks, acts as a foil for a bursting rainbow-bright plethora of sea life. Although the watercolor backgrounds are busied with detail, set against the animated school of fish surrounding Pinocchio, the sequence never seems too busy and continues to indicate the painstaking attention required by the animation process. If anything, the exhilarating opening underwater shots only make following scenes involving Monstro the Whale more frightening.
Upon seeing the mammoth whale initially, shades of gray engulf the screen like a billowing fog. Kelsey indicates, through carefully calculated coloration, that there is nothing settling about the environment surrounding the whale. The gray and white colors of fish only add to the desolate mood, and the appearance of a broken ship ethereally shrouded in the depths suggests an underwater graveyard. The only image permeating the basaltic murk is that of Monstro. His cold, dark-blue color looks chilly to the touch, and his smooth, rubbery surface shines like a tightly stretched balloon. After being awoken from slumber, Monstro’s chase for food to the water’s surface begins. The audience sees a gradual increase in colorful shading variance. As Monstro ascends from the depths, Pinocchio and Jiminy, donned in clothes detailed with bright and multi-colored hues, stand out. As this chase intensifies, one is engrossed in Geppetto and Pinocchio’s daring escape across a sea of crashing waves.
A preliminary gouache created by Kelsey for the chase scene with Monstro the Whale sheds some light on the new style of art Kelsey had adopted. In this conceptual painting, the character movement, or subject animation, is apparent, and the scene itself evokes a sea-sickish feeling through color, as the whale smashes the wooden raft like a twig, sending puppet, master, and kitten spinning down into the ocean’s depths. The unrelenting terror caused by Monstro’s presence, visualized as an enormous flailing tail in the painting’s lower-left corner, is sensed, and the hopelessness of the characters’ lot is palpable. The smallness of their stature in comparison to the vastness of the ocean engulfing them is effective, and the threat of Monstro’s repeated attacks certainly seems eminent. This conceptual art not only assisted directors in visualizing a scene of this caliber, but the inspiration it radiates translates into the final moments of the completed film.
Roiling greenish water washing into the whale’s mouth, along with blue shading dancing within the rolling surface waves, was also supervised by Kelsey. In this final battle the ocean water itself plays a pivotal role. When viewing this chaotic sequence, waves almost seem alive with movement and color. Credit should not only be given to the sequence’s brilliant effects animation, but to Kelsey’s choice of palette, too. It would have been easier to paint all water a uniform shade of blue, but instead the audience is treated to waves foaming with whites and grays set against waters undulating with shades of blue, both light and dark. His attention to detail, awareness of staging, and innate coloration sensibilities demonstrated during the production of Pinocchio certainly proved Kelsey’s worth to the studio. This powerhouse of a film, however, was only the beginning of his adventures in animation.
[i] Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 236.
[ii] Canemaker, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, 92.
[iii] Joe Grant, (Disney Artist), interview by Robin Allan, "Joe Grant (1908-2005)," Walt's People: Volume 9, May, June, August 1985, 1986:167.
[iv] College of the Siskiyous, "The Significance of Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource: Woodblock Artists." Last modified 2001. Accessed May 12, 2011. http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/art/woo.htm.
[v] Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms, Revised and Expanded Edition, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004), 173.
[vi] J.B. Kaufman, e-mail message to author, July 23, 2012.
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
|One section of Dick Kelsey's 1936 mural on display at the El Paseo Restaurant in Santa Barbara, CA|
His disappointment must have been apparent. Murals representing a window into his artistic past hung on the walls of the El Paseo Restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, discolored from nearly four decades of cigarette smoke and degenerative neglect. With his third wife Alma at his side, one can imagine how the artist might have struggled to reflect positively on the significance of his creations.[i] It was 1936 when he was originally commissioned to paint the murals for the Santa Barbara Rotary Club. Those murals bear out his love of “the Rancho Era (1821-1848)” of California, and thus were very personal.[ii] Although the years were clearly unkind, as evidenced by many layers of yellowing effluence coating the canvases, the Mexican California influences captured in brush strokes of a well-trained hand were still unmistakably vibrant. These murals not only represent the pinnacle of Dick Kelsey’s fine-art production before he reached the Walt Disney Studio in May of 1938, but serve as a metaphor to the underrated attention given to his life’s work.[iii]
Among the finest scenes in classic Disney films of the 1940s, Dick Kelsey’s exact contributions often remain obscured, however prominent the place his art inhabits on- screen. Fulfilling the demanding role of art director as well as layout and storyboard artist summoned the storyteller within Kelsey, thus influencing his work as a writer and primarily as an illustrator of children’s books, theme-park designs, and greeting cards. To understand what led Kelsey to Disney and how the animation studio opened the doors to other artistic ventures, it is necessary to expose the roots and influences which served to inspire him.
The greatest contributions Kelsey made to numerous artistic mediums throughout his creative career would inevitably fall victim to time, but are resurrected here. His story is one shared by many animation artists of that era, and quite worth telling.
Richmond Irwin Kelsey was born on May 3, 1905, in San Diego, California. His birthplace’s geographic landscape would have a lasting effect on Kelsey’s art. Within the first ten years of his childhood, the seaside town of San Diego forever changed with the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914. The waterway introduced east to west, with San Diego becoming the first-stop American seaport on the Pacific coast available to those traveling from Atlantic waters.
in local Balboa Park in 1915. Craftsmen who developed the massive Exposition buildings abandoned architectural embellishments common to that era, presenting to the San Diego community a mix of Italian, Mexican and Spanish revivalist architecture instead. Kathleen Brewster, Master Docent of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, shared, “The Expo is credited with introducing the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture to the area.”[iv] The Exposition housed exhibits from many artistic disciplines, scientific innovations and products of industry to rare flora and fauna. San Diego’s cultural transformation provided a healthy experiential diet for a budding artist’s burgeoning imagination.
|"California from bridge" photo taken by Frederick W. Kelsey (December 1914)|
It is not clear where or when Richmond’s interest in art truly began. However, it is certain that his father, Frederick Kelsey, and older brother, Paul Kelsey, had little to do with it. Alma Kelsey shared that Jessie Kelsey, Richmond’s mother, given her interests in acting, was likely Richmond’s biggest supporter, resulting in him becoming something of a ‘momma’s boy.’ Alma recounted, “Dick was always with her, where the other boy was with his father. [Frederick] wouldn’t give any money for paints,” so “[Richmond] went out and earned money for them.”[v] A photo in Alma Kelsey’s family collection pictured Richmond around age twelve, sitting on an old, round piano stool by an easel he had constructed himself. His artistic inclinations were recognized and supported at school by his teachers.
Although Frederick Kelsey did not approve of his son’s interest in art, and “wanted Dick to go into the” Kelsey-Jenney Commercial “College,” he certainly influenced young Richmond in more ways than one.[vi] Frederick Kelsey’s love of marine biology and photography, family trips along the Californian coast and Mexico, and education ingrained in Richmond’s conscience a desire for worldly practicality that would serve to inspire and further his future career.[vii] With or without his father’s blessings, Richmond knew the path he wanted to take in life.
*****[viii] Around the same time, Frank Morely Fletcher had come to California, becoming the first director of the newly founded Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Leaving his directorship of the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland behind in 1923, the fifty-seven-year-old artist and teacher brought with him an English tradition of woodblock printing that would go on to influence the artists he mentored. According to Santa Barbara alumni Joseph Knowles, “[Fletcher’s] decision meant a great loss for England and Scotland but a tremendous contribution to the cultural development of the Santa Barbara community.”[ix] Fletcher’s style of woodblock printing followed a bloodline that had originated centuries before in Japan, and was introduced to him in 1898 at the World’s Fair in London.
|Frank Morely Fletcher|
Colored woodblock printing, the medium which was Fletcher’s expertise, is a form of art born from a most complicated fabrication process. The artist begins with a preliminary sketch of what they want to print in this medium, usually consisting of an elaborately detailed landscape. Once the initial sketch is finished, they begin etching the subject into a flat piece of wood using a chisel and knife. Essentially, the artist is carving the wooden surface into somewhat of a large stamp of the preliminary sketch, which will be inked and pressed onto paper later. The areas of the etched image that will not be inked are carved out, raising the areas to be inked. The finished etching is called a plate. Once the plate is finished, the inking process begins. Specific areas of the plate are inked in different colors and pressed onto a large, heavy piece of paper one section at a time. Color variance can be wildly incongruous, resulting in many, many one-of-a-kind pressings. Each successive pressing must be executed with precision and applied to the same area exactly to ensure image continuity. If successfully applied, the artist is left with a colorful work of art.
Corresponding with Fletcher’s 1923 Santa Barbara arrival, Kelsey received training at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles (whose alumni would include future Disney artists John Hench and Tyrus Wong) by means of a scholarship Kelsey secured while attending high school.[x] Roughly two years later, Kelsey would continue his artistic journey, enrolling at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts after his high school graduation in 1925 (Kelsey’s graduation at age 20 may have been the result of his service in the California National Guard between 1921-1924).[xi] Under the tutelage of Fletcher, Kelsey’s natural skill as an artist, yet again, earned him a scholarship.
From its inception in 1920, the Santa Barbara School of the Arts was designed for the likes of Richmond Kelsey. In April of 1922, a charter for the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara was obtained to “afford individuals the opportunity for self-expression, training and education in music, drama, and the allied arts, and to aid in the cultural improvement of the people and in the beautification of the City of Santa Barbara.”[xii] The Santa Barbara School would serve as a training branch for the Association’s mission, and Frank Morely Fletcher would become its champion. Richmond Kelsey’s training at Santa Barbara resulted in some of his most refined and beautiful woodblock prints from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s.
One of Kelsey’s earliest woodprints, entitled “Pirates on the Shore,” dates from this period. The woodprint depicts three swashbucklers hunched over a smoking fire on white sand, treasure chest close by, a rowboat anchored to the beachhead. The intricate detail of the pirates’ defining features, and of the surrounding landscape, demonstrates Kelsey’s gift for wood etching. His staging of the pirates on the sandy shoal reveals a natural affinity for layout design, and the apparent movement amongst the men tending to the fire, not to mention the rippling water, is quite effective. A sense of mystery is injected into the piratical proceedings, too. The point of view from which Kelsey painted this daylight beach frolic imparts to the viewer an emotional rush akin to the feelings an outsider, secretly spying on three dangerous rogues protecting stolen loot, might experience. The richly colored ink variations are brilliantly executed, implying many separate pressings. Kelsey’s inclusion of a thin curving line of gray smoke trailing off from the fire into a blue sky above was an inspired choice. His awareness of spatial interplay is impressive between the sea, the beach, and distant green shores.
|"Pirates on the Shore" by Dick Kelsey - woodblock print (mid to late 1920's)|
The style Kelsey developed from Fletcher’s teachings included not only his mentor’s English/Japanese influences, but also the colors of the Californian coast he enjoyed while growing up. “Whereas Fletcher drew much of his rural idyll imagery from Europe,” observes Clive Christy on his Art and the Aesthete blog, “Kelsey returned to the rusts and burnt colors of California.”[xiii] This certainly is apparent in “Pirates on the Shore,” and in many woodprints he would create while studying at the School of the Arts.
From 1926 to 1927, Kelsey began branching into the commercial art marketplace. According to his own records, he “was employed by the Southlands Corporation in San Diego, California as [a] staff artist. This work entailed the making of maps, renderings, and diagrams of sections of land as they would look after reconstruction and planning of proposed projects (birds-eye views, perspectives, etc.).”[xiv] Kelsey certainly benefited from his time at the Corporation, given his sharpened instincts for layout and spatial design, which were manifest in his pre-Disney output.
As the 1920s rolled on, Richmond Kelsey never ceased to develop, reinvent, and refine his artistic sensibilities. Along the way, he refined his skills not only in woodblock printing but in linoleum printing as well, which follows the same production process, but is easier to cut. Oil and watercolor soon became part of his repertoire. His first art exhibitions began as early as 1927 and continued throughout the late 1920s and 1930s between Santa Barbara and San Diego, earning him acclaim and many awards given by the surrounding artistic community.
During 1928, Kelsey began teaching art classes in southern California. Much like his artistic endeavors, Kelsey approached teaching with vigor and a restless energy, instructing numerous courses at many schools between September 1928 and June 1930. More specifically, Kelsey’s personal records reveal that the artist was an instructor of painting, drawing, design, color, and layout at the Dean School for Boys in Montecito, California. He instructed classes at the Crane Country School for Boys in the same location while also teaching a history and geography course at the Santa Barbara Girls School. The latter course centered on “making models, drawings, diagrams, maps, and charts in conjunction with regular history and geography,” giving Kelsey a chance to utilize the skills he gained at the Southlands Corporation in San Diego.[xv] In addition, he taught art at the Santa Barbara School for Boys in Summerland, California, following in Fletcher’s footsteps as a teacher of woodblock printing, along with design composition, painting, still life, and illustration at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts. His transition from pupil to instructor, luckily enough, came at the height of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts’ operational years, with enrollment “approaching 300 students.”[xvi] However, with Frank Morely Fletcher’s departure as director of the School in 1930, and the onset of the Great Depression, the institution’s status as an “important artistic colony” would soon dissipate.
Both written and oral documentation suggests Kelsey continued to teach courses at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts throughout the early 30s. While teaching may have fulfilled Kelsey’s desire to mentor, Kelsey would soon spend half a decade satisfying his increasing appetite for creative growth and discovery. For the next four years Kelsey would still instruct on the side, but delved primarily into artistic study and freelance work between San Diego and Santa Barbara.
It was during this period, the fall of 1932 to be exact, that Ward Kimball began training under Kelsey. Within a few years, Kimball would become one of Walt Disney’s most prolific master animators. Kimball’s enrollment into the Santa Barbara School of the Arts marked the beginning of a mentorship that would continue over several important phases of Kelsey’s life.
When he wasn’t refining his craft through recommended coursework, Kimball was working as a janitor at the School to make ends meet.[xvii] The admiration he had for Kelsey as an artist and as an instructor increased tenfold while Kimball attended courses. Kimball must have felt fortunate to have experienced his mentor’s instructional style and artistic philosophy during such a creatively fertile period of Kelsey’s life. Kelsey’s approach stimulated Kimball’s artistic inquisitiveness, entreating him into “thinking about design – about how a picture should balance out.”[xviii]
Decades later, Kimball recalled Kelsey “giv[ing] amazing assignments” and having a “no-nonsense, commercial attitude towards art.”[xix] Courses under Kelsey’s instruction were not confined to the classroom, and on many occasions he took his pupils on “painting trips to the Lompoc Valley or the Rockies in the summer.”[xx] Students were assigned many interesting art exercises, including painting pictures “in the fog” and experimenting with “dynamic symmetry (the use of geometric shapes and their symmetry to create images).”[xxi] Kimball noted that Kelsey was mechanically inclined, as Kelsey’s nuanced approach to watercolor painting was punctuated by a truly unique watercolor paper-stretching style. Extracurricular activities benefited from Kelsey’s touch when he assisted in designing sets and set backdrops for Santa Barbara School of the Arts’ plays. Summing up his experiences with Kelsey, Kimball claimed he never would have learned techniques, like those Kelsey espoused, elsewhere.
With Kelsey’s personal artistic journey in full swing between 1930 and 1934, his natural love for Mexican culture took shape with new creative influences, mainly famed muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s expertise lay in fresco murals, and “throughout the Twenties his fame grew with a number of large murals depicting scenes from Mexican history.”[xxii] The theme of Rivera’s art often focused upon social progressiveness, and Rivera was alternately revered and reviled for his radical political views. Alma Kelsey shared that her late husband, Richmond Kelsey, visited Mexico on many occasions while in the midst of his art studies. He even spent time in Rivera’s hometown of Guanajuato “possibly a week or more” at a time to soak in the culture.[xxiii] Richmond loved “to go out at night and watch the courting going on in the square. He love[d] the Mexican dancers, the ladies” according to Alma. “He painted the market-places. [There were] many people in his paintings, but you can’t see the people’s faces because they have big hats on, braids of garlic and onions. [xxiv]” It was the realism and historical accuracy of Rivera’s art that no doubt attracted Kelsey, as variations central to Kelsey’s subsequent artistic output bear that relevance out in full.
With the 1930s also came a gradual change in Kelsey’s preferred artistic mediums. Much of his work in the 1920s was woodblock prints, but his style gradually lent itself to oils and watercolor with the dawning of the next decade.
A 1930s oil panting entitled, “Queen of the Missions,” reveals another side of Kelsey’s versatility, his knack for portraying movement in his art. The painting is of the Santa Barbara Mission, and to look at it is to feel Kelsey’s love of Southern Californian culture. The architecture of the Mission itself is indicative of the Spanish Colonial style, a style that was later revitalized and had an impactful part on Kelsey’s childhood surroundings in San Diego. Kelsey’s choice of warm, earthy colors and refracted light brings out the heat of the area, yet supple tree branches, bursting with lush growth, indicate a subdued coolness. The human figures populating the foreground blend into the environment perfectly, and are portrayed in a mid-bustle stasis. Amongst several figures painted in front of the Mission, the two most compelling are the male and female occupying the foreground near a large fountain. The figures’ garments, in particular the warm colors of the male, contribute to the era’s rustic feel in this beautiful painting. An admirer of Kelsey’s work once stated, “Mr. Kelsey is one who sees romance in all walks of life,” and these two figures, presumably lovers, at the fountain in this oil painting constitute a prime example.[xxv]
|"Queen of the Missions" by Dick Kelsey - oil (early 1930s)|
An examination of Kelsey’s 1934 watercolor painting entitled “Summerland” may hint at some of the watercolor techniques to which Ward Kimball referred. The crooked window frames and doorways of the red ramshackle house on the Californian coastline exude an earthy charm and invite warmth. The artist’s choice of color, and the way in which it is executed within the framework of the sketch, compels the viewer to consider the unacknowledged lushness of nature. The muted background coloration of the houses and trees in the distance yielding to a soft, white sky truly accentuates the house. Dark red shading effectively illustrates the movement of light as it falls on the house, highlighting flower blossoms in the front yard. Kelsey’s considerate use of negative space, not so much in the sky above, but within the twisting branches of the trees, door and window frames, and in the feathered coloring of wandering chickens, is quite impressive. The verve and visual appeal of the piece is certainly indicative of the California watercolor movement.
By the end of 1934, Richmond Kelsey’s artistic endeavors accelerated, beginning with pieces created for both the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego and the Smithsonian Institute. According to Kelsey, his Exposition work consisted of designing and supervising the construction of six dioramas with eight craftsmen under his employment. He would receive a bronze medal for his ’35 Exposition work.[xxvi]
Kelsey “designed and executed two murals as backgrounds for [the] museum habitat groups” for the Smithsonian.[xxvii] A 1935 Smithsonian financial report reveals that Kelsey’s murals centered upon the exploration of Coronado, or, more specifically, Coronado’s contact with the Apache Indians and the 16th Century conquest of the American West. Life-sized figures wearing original costumes of the era stand aside Zuni pueblos in “landscapes typical of the country in which these tribes live[d].” “Mr. Kelsey has done a considerable amount of landscape modeling, filling in backgrounds for exhibits,” shared Eugene Kellogg, former Agricultural Commissioner of Santa Barbara County. “He has painted the backdrops, fabricated the foreground in the form of terrain so as to blend the terrain into the backdrops. He has excelled in this type of work.”[xxviii] This wouldn’t be the last occasion Kelsey would produce art associated with Native American history.
|Dick Kelsey (mid-1930's)|
Kelsey’s flair for painting with warm colors associated with the American Southwest and his love of Mexican California are evident in the four murals he painted for the Club’s El Paseo location. His reverence for Rivera’s art is not only channeled, but recognizably transmitted in Kelsey’s stressing of the historical accuracy of his paintings. Kelsey seemed drawn to the early days of California, when Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexicans inhabited the Santa Barbara area around the early and mid-19th Century.
One of the large murals depicts “a carreta drawn by oxen and bearing the fruit, flowers, and members of the old Spanish families, accompanied by the Indians and Mexicans carrying baskets of oranges, pomegranates, and flowers.”[xxxi] Mules and horses carry other inhabitants and the fruits of their labor, as seen in the other mural pieces, and all the while the characters seemed to be locked in a state of conversation and action. The clothing of the men and women assist the viewer by hinting the subjects’ cultural milieu, and reveal the painstaking amount of research Kelsey must have undertaken to reasonably synthesize Mexican, Spanish, and Native American clothing styles accurately. His color ranges veer from warmer values to earthy blends, while reflected light on the texture of the desert-like terrain and plant life radiates thermal aridity. The backgrounds themselves are void of detail, with the exception of a random cactus, and are tan in color, bringing warmer colors to the fore. Kelsey’s depiction of the period has an emotional pull which seems to evoke a time he might have been very comfortable living in.
In a way, Kelsey’s Rotary Club murals serve as the culmination of his upbringing, combining his cultural understanding, influences, training, intellect, and artistic seriousness simultaneously. “His eyes have seen and linked old roads, wild oak, red barns and old shacks,” shared a December 1937 Santa Barbara News Press article. “He has explored California from Oregon to Mexico and has been particularly happy in painting in and around Santa Barbara.”[xxxii] A man who fully realized art was, indeed, a core element of his existence, Kelsey was about to soar to new heights.
[i] From Kathleen Brewster’s private conversation with Alma Kelsey on July 13, 1990. Courtesy Kathleen Brewster.
[ii] Kathleen Brewster, e-mail message to author, February 24, 2013
[iii] Steven M. Vagnini, e-mail message to author, January 22, 2013.
[iv] Kathleen Brewster, e-mail message to author, May, 22 2011.
[v] Kelsey to Brewster, 1990.
[vii] Paul F. Mullins, e-mail message to author, May 16, 2011.
[viii] The Gray Castle: June 1924 (San Diego), p. 12.
[ix] Joseph Knowles, “Santa Barbara’s Historic Link to Color Wood Block Printing,” Noticias: Santa Barbara Historical Society Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Winter, 1970).
[x] From Richmond I. Kelsey’s 1987 memorial service handout
[xi] Pierce, J. Statement of Service, January 12, 1943. Letter. Sacramento, CA: State of California, The Adjutant General’s Office. From National Personnel Records Center. Typed.
[xii] Ruth Lilly Westphal and Janet B. Dominik eds., Plein Air Painters of California the North (Westphal Publishing, 1986).
[xiii] Art and the Aesthete; “Richmond Irwin Kelsey (1905-1988),” blog entry by Clive Christy, June 14, 2009
[xiv] Kelsey, Richmond I. Enclosure “F” (handwritten documentation accompanying Marine Corps application), September 1, 1942. Application document. La Canada, CA. From National Personnel Records Center. Handwritten.
[xvi] Michael Redmon, “Can You Give Me Some Background on the Artist Frank Morely Fletcher?,” Santa Barbara Independent, March 13, 2008, http://www.independent.com/news/2008/mar/13/can-you-give-me-some-background-artist-frank-morle/.
[xvii] John Canemaker, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, (New York: Disney Editions, 2001), 92.
[xviii] John Canemaker, Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 148.
[xix] Canemaker, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, 92; Ward Kimball to Patricia Cleek (Courtesy Kathleen Brewster, e-mail message to author, May, 27 2011).
[xx] Canemaker, Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, 92.
[xxi] Brewster, May 27 e-mail (Kimball to Cleek).
[xxii] “Diego Rivera: About the Artist,” August 26, 2006, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/diego-rivera/about-the-artist/64/.
[xxiii] Kelsey to Brewster, 1990.
[xxv] The Morning Press. “Artists Have New York in View.” March 17, 1933.
[xxvi] Kelsey, Richmond I. Enclosure “F” document.
[xxvii] Smithsonian Institute, "Report of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Financial Report of the Executive Committee of the Board of Regents." Last modified 1935. Accessed November 1, 2012. http://www.archive.org/stream/reportofsecretar1935smit/reportofsecretar1935smit_djvu.txt.
[xxviii] Kellogg, Eugene. August 31, 1942. Letter. From National Personnel Records Center. Typed.
[xxix] Kelsey, Richmond I. Enclosure “F” document.
[xxx] "One of Murals Unveiled at Rotary Club's Meeting.” Morning edition. October 18, 1936.
[xxxii] "Richmond Kelsey Brings the Picturesque to Attention." The Santa Barbara News-Press, December 14, 1937