"Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." - Walt Disney

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Unrealized Art of Dick Kelsey - PART I

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.      

To commemorate the Panama Canal’s completion, the Panama-California Exposition was held
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.     


In the San Diego High School Russ editorial staff section of the 1924 yearbook, Richmond Kelsey is pictured in a suit and tie, with a caption to the left reading, “Dick Kelsey, ‘Snap Mounter.’”[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. 

"Summerland" by Dick Kelsey - watercolor (1934)

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)
For the next three years, beginning in February of 1935, Richmond Kelsey was employed by the Peterson Studios of Santa Barbara as a designer and color supervisor of interior decorating. During the same time period, Kelsey also undertook exhibition painting under his own name, and found work in and around the Santa Barbara community.[xxix] In the latter part of 1936, he received a commission from the Santa Barbara Rotary Club to create mural pieces depicting “the Indian, Mexican, and early California days” of the Santa Barbara area.[xxx] The subject of the paintings could not have been closer to the artist’s heart. 

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.

[vi] Ibid.

[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.

[xv] Ibid.

[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.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[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.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] "Richmond Kelsey Brings the Picturesque to Attention." The Santa Barbara News-Press, December 14, 1937