Monday, June 27, 2011

Remembering Ken O'Connor, PART 1

CAL ARTS 1973 photo by Mike Peraza 
It was the first day of school in our Character Animation class of Drawing and Perspective at California Institute of the Arts. Our teacher was a Disney veteran named Ken O'Connor I remember his tall form walking to the front of the class and asking in his unique Australian accent who in the group was interested in getting into Layout. After reading and marveling at the breathtaking images in the weight-lifter break your coffee table's legs edition of "The Art Of Walt Disney", my arm shot up but soon found itself the lone flag waving in a non-exhistent breeze as most of the folks there had their eyes on being animators. Ken winked at my red face with a big grin and I just knew we were going to get along just fine. As his classes got under way, he would encourage each of us to explore the many styles and mediums as he himself had demonstrated time and again with designs ranging from the traditional "Lady and the Tramp" to the more pop influenced  "Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom." Ken was a gentle genius, and that was plain to all who were fortunate enough to know him.

Walt Disney Studios at Hyperion 1930s
He was born in Perth, Australia in 1908 where when he wasn't clipping wayward joeys who wandered in on the family property, he studied commercial art at Melbourne Technical College and later at Australian National Gallery. He and his family then traveled up over to the United States to continue his studies at California School of Art in San Francisco. In 1935, Ken like many art students across the nation were informed about openings at an up and coming company called Walt Disney Studios where he was promptly hired and eventually worked on 13 features,100 short subjects, Disneyland attractions, 3 independent features and even a mural for his friend and former boss at the Ben Sharpsteen Museum named after the Disney legend Director and Producer. The mural successfully combined a life size 3/4 chunk of a real California stagecoach to an illustrated 6 horse team arriving in town and of course the perspective was flawless. 

O'Connor mural for Sharpsteen Museum
I spent a few nights over at Ken's Burbank home which was only a few streets down from my apartment at the time, while he was painting the mural in his back yard. We talked at length about film, art, and keeping pesky bugs from landing on fresh paint. When I say we talked, it should be admitted that Ken did most of the talking and this pup listened carefully after all Ken had actually been there and done that. If Walt had ever assembled a "Nine Old Men" team of Layout and Art Directors, Ken would have deserved a front row seat. Over the next few chapters I will share some of those discussions, his artwork, and personal photos while I remember not only a Disney legend, but a good personal friend. This veritable mountain of experience became one of the most valued instructors at the early Cal Arts Character Animation Program for his many extraordinaire talents not the least of which was his tireless and inspirational guidance for the next generation of animation artists.