Art Disney Created for the Armed Forces in World War II Explored in New Exhibit

By Larsen, Peter | Pasadena Star-News, June 4, 2017 | Go to article overview

Art Disney Created for the Armed Forces in World War II Explored in New Exhibit


Larsen, Peter, Pasadena Star-News


Kevin Staniec remembers seeing the old black-and-white photograph for the first time about five years ago, not long after he came to work as an arts programmer for the city of Irvine and the Great Park the city is developing on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

In the picture, which had been taken about 70 years earlier, Walt Disney, the man himself, is seen holding one side of a large flying bull logo — a muscular nose-ringed cartoon bull with large white wings, horns and a no-nonsense expression on its face. On the other side of the frame, Col. William Fox, not only the base commander on that day in 1943, but the Marine who had designed the base built on old Irvine Company land over the previous year or so.

“I saw that photo of Walt and I remember walking up to it and thinking, ‘Why is there a photo of Walt Disney here?’” Staniec says.

Five years and a whole lot of work later the answer goes on display this weekend at the Great Park Gallery at the Palm Court Arts Complex. “Walt and the Flying Bull” is the name of the show Staniec curated, and in it we learn not only that Disney designed a logo that remained a presence at El Toro until the base was decommissioned in 1999, but that Disney and his animators also made upwards of 1,200 other insignia for military bases and units of the Unites States and the Allied Forces over the course of World War II.

“The story that came back is the that the majority of men and women who were serving overseas, it really made them feel closer to home, because of the familiarity of the Disney characters,” Staniec says. “I think the nostalgia aspect and the connection to home, it became a lot of the narrative for their bases and units.”

The exhibit pairs historical images of the Flying Bull and many other Disney-created insignia with a dozen reinterpretations of the bull by contemporary artists who have worked for some part of the Disney empire in recent years. Those images provide a modern context to all the art that was created during the war by Disney animators such as Hank Porter, whom Disney referred to as “a one-man art department” and who was responsible for about 80 percent of the 1,200 insignia the company donated to the war effort.

One of the contemporary artists, Linnea Motts, grew up in Irvine and remembers her father taking her to the El Toro base to see the Blue Angels fly when she was a young girl.

“What really excites me about art or products people make is taking something expected and making it unexpected,” says Motts, who works as a user-interface and user-experience designer for mobile games at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media. “Seeing Donald Duck on a tank, I don’t know, that just makes me really happy.”

Her piece, titled “Rubber Hose Graffiti,” emerged from her study of the original Flying Bull insignia and the cartoons of the World War II era.

“It’s a rubber-hose style, black and white, thick-lined cartoons,” says Motts, who lives in Glendale. “I really liked that connection to the past, and taking that style but combining it with being more modern, which is the texture and abstract grungy graffiti, if you will.”

Artist Nolen Lee’s work is a lovely watercolor titled “Flying Bull,” a portrayal of a bull soaring over the patchwork quilt of landscape squares below.

“Both of my grandfathers served in the war,” says Lee, who lives in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle. “One of them was in an American volunteer group called the Flying Tigers. I remember seeing the insignia growing up and also realizing it was designed by a Disney artist.”

At first he struggled to find a concept he liked for the Flying Bull, but after looking at photographs of the old base and the World War II-era aircraft that might have used its runways something stirred in his imagination. …

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