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September 27, 2015

Disney Artist - Alex Maher

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One of the things I most enjoy about Disney fan meets is the new and interesting people I meet there. One of those people is Disney Design Artist Alex Maher who I had a chance to meet and speak with a few months ago at Dayton Disneyana.

Alex Maher

Carol had met him several times at events for pin collectors, but this was my first opportunity to make his acquaintance. I’m sure glad I didn’t pass up the chance!

Footloose and Collar Free Print
When Alex signed this print, Footloose and Collar Free, for Carol he told her it was one of his favourite pieces!

This certificate was included with the print.

Footloose and Collar Free Certificate


I wrote a bit about the Saturday afternoon seminar Alex participated in at Dayton, and the many drawings he did that week end, in a previous blog about Dayton Disneyana; you can find it HERE.

Alex Maher and Jim Hill

In this blog I’ll focus on Alex’s Friday afternoon presentation. He began his remarks by telling us he was the world’s biggest fan of Walt Disney; then he spent an hour proving beyond a doubt that his claim was true!

Before I describe the seminar, let me tell you a bit about Alex’s background and how he landed his dream job with Disney.

Alex is a “Florida Cracker”; that’s a term people born and raised in Florida use to describe themselves! As the short Disney biography pictured above says, Alex spent his early years in Miami where his father was a writer and artist. His first memory of Disney dates back to his days in kindergarten; during a visit to the school library he picked up a Disney book . . . he couldn’t read, but in his words, “I was mesmerized by the pictures. Since that day I’ve been a fanatic about Walt Disney.”

In those days, before the Internet, writers spent countless hours in libraries doing research. Alex would often accompany his father on those library trips and while Dad researched his latest project, young Alex would read everything he could find on Walt Disney. He began to sketch Disney characters and his father, also an artist, would provide constructive criticism. “That’s really good Alex, but do you think it might be better if you . . . ?”

One truly amazing fact he shared with us – Alex has had no formal art training. In addition to being the world’s greatest fan of Walt Disney he is also a gifted artist! His talents include drawing, painting, sculpting and the ability to conceive and design original works. And it’s all self-taught!

A print by Alex Maher

After finishing high school Alex joined the US Navy; as you might expect, sketches of Disney characters adorned many area of his ship! He left the military in 1983 and returned to Miami where he worked in several “Mom and Pop” graphic design shops. He became a member of the National Fantasy Fan Club (also known as The Disneyana Fan Club) in the early 1980’s. Naturally he followed the help wanted ads and applied for every Disney job he saw. No job resulted, but he just kept on applying.

By 1987 he was Art Department Head at a small college near Miami. Most days, during his lunch hour, you could find Alex in the college library. He searched every issue of the New York Times from 1901, the year Walt Disney was born, until 1966 when Walt passed away. He photocopied every article that mentioned Walt in any way and painstakingly organized the news clippings in a series of binders. Of course, while Alex was assembling this life history of his idol, he continued to apply for any job he could get at Disney.

In 1991 he made a daring decision. He felt that if he was ever going to land a job at Disney he would have to be closer to the action. So, with no guarantee of a job, Alex decided to press a little harder to follow his dream. He and his wife sold their home and moved, with their two children, to Orlando.

He finally managed to get a job interview; they were looking for bus drivers . . . it wasn’t the creative job he was looking for, but it would be a foot in the door. He made it to the second interview and was hopeful, until the department manager asked, “Your background is all related to art. Why do you want to be a bus driver?” Alex replied honestly, “I’ve heard that Disney promotes from within, so I’m hoping that if I start here it can lead to an art-related job in the future.” It turned out that the manager wasn’t interested in spending the money to train a driver, only to have him move to the art department . . . Alex didn’t get that job!

He did find work at another theme park, just down the road, but in Alex’s words, “It was fun, but it just wasn’t Disney.”

Bambi

Through his membership in the National Fantasy Fan Club he knew the names of a few accomplished Disney artists. One of them was Don “Ducky” Williams. Alex explained it this way, “I didn’t know him personally, but read many articles about him in our club newsletters. When I moved to Orlando, I tried to meet him but he was on vacation at the time. But I did meet his boss who said ‘Come back tomorrow and show me some of your work.’ I got busy that night and did three drawings, Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. I met the manager the next day; he liked my work, but said there was nothing available in his department. He suggested I try the merchandising division. The next day I visited the creative department of the merchandise division and luckily they liked my work. I was hired on as a freelance artist.”

Finally Alex had a job at Disney and it wasn’t long before they saw his potential. On December 6, 1993 he became a full employee rather than a freelance artist. It was a long struggle, but Alex was finally a very proud Disney cast member!

Tinker Bell

So what does a Disney Design Artist do?

The short answer is, pretty much everything, other than animation. Their work revolves around merchandise, any kind of merchandise, and you can see it on shelves all over the parks. If you buy a coffee mug, a print, a figurine, a t-shirt, a cloisonné pin or a Vinylmation the concept for the piece sprang from the imagination of a design artist. Figurines and other complex pieces require a “four position drawing” showing the piece from four different viewpoints.

Alex was one of the original members of the “Pin Team” established in 1999 to design trading pins and those cloisonné pins still make up a large proportion of the designs he creates.

Here are a few pins from Carol's collection that Alex Maher designed.

Boxed Pin Set
This boxed set is a Limited Edition of 1400 from the 2006 Pin Celebration at EPCOT

Signed Pins
These two pins are also from the 2006 Pin Celebration at EPCOT. Alex Maher has signed the back of each pin as well as the backer card it is mounted on.


What are the challenges for a Disney Design Artist?

According to Alex, new characters are a challenge. It’s tough to design a t-shirt or a coffee mug if you don’t understand the character. Everyone is familiar with Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Donald. How they will react in a situation or what expression you will see on their faces can be easily imagined. But new characters, like Joy or Anger from the recently released Inside Out aren’t so easy; the creative people don’t yet fully understand the personality of the character. The artists often see a “rough cut” of the movie long before its release, but they sometimes have to submit their concept art to the manufacturers as much as 18 months before the merchandise is available for sale. Sometimes the movie can change appreciably and the personalities of the animated characters can transform in that time.

Characters in costumes are challenging. When designing a figurine featuring a character in an African costume the artist has to be very careful with the choice of colours. Colours have very strong meanings in African culture. Posture, position and gestures are important too. In North America the “thumbs up” gesture means ‘All right’ or ‘A-OK’ but in many foreign cultures it’s a definite no-no.

Scuba Diving Mickey

I’m pretty sure that the job of a Disney Design Artist isn’t always fun and games, but Alex sure makes it seem that way. The pride he feels for his work and for his association with the Disney Corporation shines through in everything he says and does. He is a great ambassador for Disney!

Now, let’s get back to that Friday afternoon seminar I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. If you’re not convinced yet that Alex Maher is the worlds biggest fan of Walt Disney these next few paragraphs should drive the point home!

Alex presented a slide show he prepared quite a few years ago, titled The History of Walt Disney. All the information he gathered from all those New York Times articles was combined with knowledge he gathered from other reading and from conversations with Disney family members, Disney executives and Disney Legends. He sifted and organized the data into an hour-long presentation.

As Alex spoke he used the computer slides to illustrate key points and places in Walt’s life. Alex began his story with Elias and Flora, Walt’s parents, and their 1888 marriage in Kismet Florida, about 50 miles north of Walt Disney World. He followed the family to Chicago where Walt was born in 1901 and showed us pictures of that house as it looked then and contrasted that with a picture of the house as it looks today.

You see, Alex Maher has made a pilgrimage . . . actually a series of pilgrimages. He has visited every significant location in the life of his hero and he took photographs everywhere he traveled. His research took him to Chicago IL, Marceline MO, Kansas City MO, Los Angeles CA and many other places. Most of those places he has visited several times, always eager to find out more and more about Walt.

Uncle Robert's garage
This is the garage behind Walt's Uncle Robert's house where Walt and Roy first operated their animation studio.


The same garage at Griffith Park
That garage is now located at Griffith Park


The stirring story Alex wove for everyone followed Walt’s life from cradle to grave; we heard of his school years, his years on the farm near Marceline, delivering newspapers in Kansas City, driving an ambulance in World War I, through to his early days of animation, partnering with brother Roy Disney and long time friend Ub Iwerks. The Alice Stories, Oswald, Mickey Mouse, animated movies, live action movies, Disneyland and Walt Disney World were mingled with stories of Walt’s family life, his triumphs and his tragedies.

Alice from the slide show

It was all illustrated with pictures from the Disney Archives and pictures Alex has taken during his frequent research trips. There were pictures of Walt’s many homes, the schools he attended, churches, animation studios, the garage where the first animation cels of Mickey Mouse were created, Main Street in Marceline, the Marceline train station which is now a museum dedicated to Walt Disney, and even the carousel at Griffith Park where Walt conceived the idea of Disneyland while sitting on a park bench watching his daughters.

Garage where the first cels of Mickey were created
Walt and Roy built identical pre-fab homes in 1927. Walt's house is shown in the upper right and the bottom picture is Walt's house as it looks today. The first animation cels featuring Mickey Mouse were created in Walt's garage in 1928, a year after the house was built.


Alex’s eyes got a bit misty a few times during the hour and his voice almost failed him a time or two; I was feeling the same way and I suspect that almost everyone else in the room was too! The depth of Alex’s reverence for Walt Disney came through loud and clear!

Alex has delivered the presentation we saw at Dayton Disneyana to people from all levels in the Disney organization; senior executives, the legal department and the Imagineers have seen the presentation in their boardrooms. Cast members from many other departments have enjoyed the show in their lunchrooms and members of the National Fantasy Fan Club have seen it at their local meetings. I’m sure glad I had the chance to experience it at Dayton Disneyana!

Let me wrap up by showing you a few more of Alex’s creations and then giving you a glimpse of what will be hitting the store shelves soon.

Prints of Alex Maher's painting of Elsa are flying off the shelves!

Elsa by Alex Maher

This one is selling well too!

Mickey by Alex Maher

After the Friday seminar someone asked Alex what his favourite creations were; he mentioned two. The first was a jumbo pin, a limited edition of 750. It shows Mickey riding on Walt’s backyard steam engine, the Lilly Belle, with Walt’s red barn in the background. The train slides back and forth on the track. Alex is proud of this one because every member of the Disney family was given one when it was released in 2007.

Walt's Train Pin

The second was his painting for the 60th Anniversary of Disneyland. Artists were asked to create a series of six paintings, one to commemorate each decade in the park’s history. Alex designed and painted the 1955 – 1964 canvas. Below is a print of that painting that he signed for Carol in Dayton.

Alex Maher signed print

He described what we can look for in the future. Most of these items will début at the D23 Expo in August and some may make it to store shelves by the time this blog is published!

Look for a large figurine of Goofy, dressed as Bert from the Mary Poppins movie in his one-man band outfit. Based on the gestures Alex made, it will be about 18” tall.

Alex designed the logo pin for the 2015 D23 Expo

D23 EXPO Logo Pin

He created these 8 pins which are part of a 16 pin Mystery Box Puzzle Series. Pin collectors buy boxes containing 2 wrapped pins and then trade pins in an attempt to get one of each of the sixteen pins.

Mystery Pin Set

Once traders have all 16, the pins combine like a jig saw puzzle to form Sleeping Beauty Castle.

D23 EXPO Mystery Pin Frame

Look for this 14” tall figure of Jingles, the carousel horse from Mary Poppins. This version will be sold at Disneyland. In Florida Jingles will have a rider, Mickey Mouse dressed as a Dapper Dan.

Jingles

This Three Caballeros figurine is 14” tall.

Three Caballeros figurine

Alex and his family took a huge risk in 1991; they packed up and left everything behind to follow his Disney dream. Today both Alex and his wife are happily employed by Disney, their 30 year-old son is a film producer in Hollywood and their 25 year-old daughter is a sketch artist at Disneyland.

Just like Walt said, “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”

September 27, 2009

D23 Expo - One Fan's Perspective

Hi everyone. I am Mari May and I am writing my very first blog to tell you about my experience at D23. I live 25 minutes from Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure and I am a frequent flyer at both parks. D23 was a Dream. When I look throught my pictures, go through my swag or look throught the guide book, a bit of menalcholy sets in. I miss D23 already! Enjoy my thoughts and pictures of D23.

Oh, D23, what will you be like? For a few weeks my anticipation had grown until I was ready to explode. My excitement was difficult to contain.

Finally, Thursday, September 10 had arrived. After rising about 05:30am, I made my way to the Convention Center, parked and was in line by 06:45am. So were a ton of other people!

The doors opened a bit early and the process for receiving our wristbands was a snap. Then, guide book and pre-printed, well gone over schedule in hand, off to the main floor. First stop, the ever present Disney queue for the Dream Store. MUST get pins! This was one of the under-whelming parts. Lots of merchandise that can be purchased in the park, D23 items, beautiful artwork and items from Disney on Broadway. Then, behind curtain #1, another queue for the cash (or credit card) registers. All in all, not a terrible experience.

D23 Expo

The two main venues I wanted to see had lines so long that hope of getting in was quickly abandoned. So, I wandered around the convention floor looking at the different vendors' wares.

D23 Expo

Everything was there from furniture to scrap booking to makeup, pins and artwork, and of course, travel agents and books. MouseFanTravel.com's booth was my respite..friendly faces in a sea of humanity.

I was able to attend 2 seminars that afternoon - Beauty and the Beast panel and the ABC's of Disney. On the last seminar they made us turn in our cell phones, cameras and Blackberrys. Both were fantastic seminars"Paige O'Hara is so sweet"definitely Belle! As for the ABC's of Disney, the excitement was very palpable and the energy and excitement flooded the room! What a great feeling! Unfortunately I had to leave early, but I left feeling satisfied and excited and looking forward to Day 2!


Day 2, Sept 11.

After personally saying my own remembrance of that day 8 yrs ago, this seasoned explorer of Day 1 was off again to the Expo, food and water in my bag. The food prices are a bit expensive. Budgeting for 'stuff' not food! Oh yes, and comfortable, sensible shoes.

First stop was DCL seminar. Thankfully my friends found me or I never would have seen the presentation!

D23 Expo

What exciting news was revealed. Alaska 2011 complete with a nice, warm scarf for all who attended.

D23 Expo

Even tho I had my sessions pre-decided, those choices went out the window after walking around a bit and lots of walking was done. Disney Movie Magic was phenomenal. Again the confiscated all electronics. It was rather a zoo to retrieve them afterwards, but Disney did the best they could.

I must say one of my favorite sessions was the Evolution of Mickey with Dave Pacheco and Andreas Deja.

D23 Expo

After an interesting presentation on 1920's Mickey to today's' Mouse. Dave donned a Mickey costume, complete with Ears, and break-away red shorts! He was the model for Andreas' sketches.

D23 Expo

D23 Expo


Both of these men were very funny, comfortable and were so engaging. Dave was in many poses for Andreas and was moving constantly. Oh the laughter! It was just delightful. An early day for me again".darn"family beckons. Next year, they are just going to be on their own!!!


Day 3, Sept 12.

Here early again today, I must see the Disneynature presentation. Oh my goodness. It was better than I ever imagined. How these cameramen (and women) capture the essence of these animals is spectacular. The future presentations of Disneynature are formidable and challenging and I am so looking forward to viewing them. Jaw-dropping, oohs and ahhhs..

D23 Expo

I then attended the Snow White panel and screening. Marge Champion, the model for Snow White, was among the panelists. What a great lady and very funny, too.

D23 Expo

D23 Expo

I spent time in the Walt Disney Archives seeing the costumes and accessories used in making the different Disney productions.

Then again, I wandered about the arena and somehow managed to see things I had missed, getting autographs of artists, it was so wonderful to meet these clever and creative people, and talking with so many people from around the world. What a nice time for me!

The Disney Corporate Responsibility Pavilion was great. We made blankets, planted seeds, painted pictures and bagged after school snacks for the kids. Very nice. There was also an area to drop off canned goods and the cast members were making a castle of the items. What a nice touch, to be able to do something for others while having so much fun.

Day 4, September 13.

I have many sessions again marked, but I just can't do them all. Between the unending queues for some sessions and over-lapping times, it is just not possible to see all of my choices. So, new choices were made! After the long queues on Thursday I did bring a crossword puzzle book to the other 3 days. I must say, I finished quite a few pages in that book, especially waiting in line for Disney and Pixar presentation.

D23 Expo

Between this and the showing of the Tinker Bell movie, I wandered the floor of the arena, speaking with different vendors, which was fun, taking pictures, (I found my dream bedroom décor), making an autograph book at a scrap booking vendor's booth, I checked out the new toys and decided just to sit and people watch for a while.

I wandered around 'Celebration', up and coming events and attractions at the parks, especially Disney Hong Kong. Photo ops abound not just with Disney characters, but with pieces of Disney history, Wall-E, the snail from Electrical parade, Lucky the dinosaur just to name a few. It was much too much fun! And the imagineers who come up with these concepts, brilliant.

When it came time for the Tinker Bell movie, I thought the line would be quite long. Not so. The Disney Theatre was not full, much to my surprise. The movie was fantastic, the animations was great, the colors were vivid and the message of the movie was timeless - take care with your friends, we all need them.

I did meet new friends, enjoyed my friends I knew and had a great time. I had very ambivalent feelings about the last day. I was glad it was over as I was very tired, but sorry it was over because it was so much fun.

Looking back on those four days, I ran the gamut of emotions - joy, excitement, wonder, disappointment, tears.

There were highs - seeing Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, Travoltas, Dave Pacheco, Disneynature, DCL and of course, TinkerBell.

And there were lows - some how I thought there might have been more vendors and oh those interminable lines. I think Disney was caught unaware of how popular some of the presentations would be. Larger rooms are needed for next year. And the schedules, great ideas, presentations, but some could be presented more than once (and some were). There were many disappointed and disgruntled people turned away from great sessions in much too small of rooms.

Am I sorry I went? Absolutely not! I am ready to do it all over again. Unfortunately I'll need to wait for a year to do it again. But, I'll return with knowledge and preparations I didn't have this year and I'm certain I'll enjoy it just as much if not more.

Now watch, since I feel I am so prepared, Disney will change everything and I'll be back to square one!

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