Artist Marc Davis created the female countenances of Disney’s animated characters Cinderella and Cruella De Vil and was instrumental in adding life to three-dimensional Disneyland attractions like “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.”
But few have seen the fine art he made in his living room while watching TV after he got home from the office.
Alice Davis is accomplishing a longtime dream of her late husband by sharing a great body of that work for an exhibition opening Friday at Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale.
“I only wish Marc could be here to see it,” she said, adding that he had often expressed the hope that his personal work could be shown in a public gallery.
People only knew him as one of Disney’s Nine Old Men, the team of pioneering animators Walt Disney assembled in the 1930s to advance the art of motion picture animation. He started with Disney in 1935 when the studio was in Silver Lake and retired in the late 1970s.
A remarkable thing about the exhibition is how it shows his personal fine art, a side few people saw, said Jim Clark, ambassador representative with Walt Disney Imagineering.
“People who know Marc Davis’ work, what he did with Disney Studios and Imagineering, know how brilliant and talented he was, but people haven’t seen his fine art, which is very personal to him,” Clark said.
Joan Adan, museum exhibit designer/curator, suggested the idea of the exhibit to the art committee to fulfill the museum’s mission, she said.
“Our mission is to present a cultural, historical and a fine-art-themed exhibit each year,” she said. “All agreed that this would be a superb fine art exhibit. We were right!”
As one of the directing animators, Marc Davis’ early assignments were the first feature-length animated film “Snow White” and then “Bambi,” Alice Davis said.
“Walt knew you had to have great draftsmen to design realistic characters,” she said, adding that before these features the artists were better at drawing cartoon characters.
Not only were “Snow White’s characters anatomically correct, but Marc Davis would study human faces and instill nuances into his characters, she said.
For the characters in “Bambi,” Marc Davis studied a book of babies’ faces to duplicate the expressions in Bambi and Thumper, she said. The purpose was to match the faces with the emotions felt by the characters and the tone in their voice.
Marc Davis also worked on the Disney Audio-Animatronics figures first taken to the New York World Fairs in the mid-1960s, Alice Davis said. Later they were brought to Disneyland, like Abe Lincoln in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” He also designed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the Haunted Mansion.
Before his work with Disney, Marc Davis did fine art using media ranging from oil, charcoal, watercolor, acrylic to opaque watercolor, she said.
His subjects in the Forest Lawn Museum show range from tribesmen in New Guinea, bullfighters, harlequins, women, nature, abstracts and mythology.
In designing the rides Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, all of his work for Disney was comical, playful and fun, said Clark, whose job is to spread the Disney culture both on Disney campuses and to the public.
“If you look at his fine art, other words come to mind — passion, power,” Clark said. “Extraordinary emotion is communicated in this fine art. This is a different side but is every bit as genius, as clever and whimsical as the things he did for Disney.”
His versatility ranges from passionate representations of bullfights to simple ordinary subjects like trees, Clark added.
“There are remarkable trees in this exhibition that show how he was able to evoke emotions out of ordinary subjects,” Clark said.
He worked on his fine art after he came home at night from Disney and on weekends, Alice Davis said.
“He’d sit in front of the television and ask me what was on that night,” she said. “He would watch football, boxing or a rodeo and would sit and draw them.”
His audience would be the neighborhood kids who would come by to check out his sketchbooks and guess who he had drawn, Alice Davis said. They especially loved guessing the rock ’n’ roll stars.
“The kids would say our house was better than any museum because they could touch the art,” she said.
Women are a repeated subject in his work, and he was especially intrigued with the female bartender on the TV series “Dragnet.”
“He did it in color for the kids to see,” Alice Davis said.
Marc Davis also had a wonderful sense of color, Alice Davis said.
“And he used it well,” she said.
One colorful piece in the show is of four women each drinking a different alcoholic beverage.
Marc Davis was approached by the owners of the former Alfonse’s Restaurant in Toluca Lake to create a painting for the bar.
The restaurant was the hangout for the entertainment industry during the 1960s and ’70s.
Marc Davis took no money for it. He asked for six of the captain chairs from the restaurant. The couple had just moved into their first home and had very little furniture.
A showgirl holds a martini, a woman in a long dress has an Old-Fashioned while a Broadway star grasps a Manhattan.
The final woman dressed as a flapper holds a High Ball, which was in style during the 1920s, Alice Davis said.
“Every week Alfonse’s had offers to buy it,” she said, adding that when the restaurant closed, it was returned to them.
“They said it was now worth a lot more than six chairs,” she said.