Foundersland: First Installment

By Marty Sklar, Founder, Past President, Member of the Board of Directors

As we begin another year of great possibilities, and Ryman Arts celebrates its 25th year of serving talented young artists, Diane Brigham asked me to write an occasional essay about our program. As I’ve thought about this request, perhaps -- as one of the six Founders of Ryman Arts -- I can fill in some blank pages in our story that you might not be fully aware of. I hope that will be of interest, and perhaps help to create a historical record for our fans, our students and teachers, our staff and our Board of Directors.

The passing of any one individual can change the course of many lives. In the case of Herb Ryman, his death in 1989 meant the loss of someone whose work had helped create one of the world’s great industries – more specifically, the Disney Parks & Resorts enterprise that began in Anaheim and has spread to eleven parks on three continents around the globe. Herb Ryman drew the very first overall illustration of Disneyland for Walt Disney and helped to launch a new industry. But that alone was not the reason his friends Sharon Disney Lund, Anne and Buzz Price, and Leah and Marty Sklar joined Herb’s sister, Lucille Ryman Carroll, to create this program. The real reason is that Herb Ryman loved to help other artists improve their skills, and believed strongly in certain methods – classical and fundamental ways – that young artists should be taught to draw and paint.

Permit me to give you a little more background about Herbert Dickens Ryman. His father, Captain Herbert D. Ryman, a doctor, was killed in World War I. His mother, Cora, was able to send Herb to the famous Art Institute of Chicago, where Herb graduated in 1932. Moving to Los Angeles, he became one of the finest illustrators in the motion picture industry, helping to create scenes seen in The Black Rose, The Great Waltz, Down to the Sea in Ships, Forever Amber, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Star Is Born and others. Part of his knowledge came from his first hand travels, particularly a long trip to China, Japan, Cambodia and Thailand in 1936. It changed his whole attitude toward his art.  

I used to think I could research everything out of books, that I could trace or copy or project a horse, an eagle, an oak tree, or a girl on the beach,” Herb wrote. “I thought it was all in National Geographic…By actually touching ruins, feeling the wind on my cheeks as I walked along The Great Wall and resting in the oasis of the desert, I began to realize this is real and I am here and nature is where you have to go. It is the reality of the earth, the reality of leaves on a tree, seeing the roses bloom, to touch a horse’s nose or feel a dog’s ear. This is the greatest source of my inspiration.”

That inspiration found its way into everything he painted, including his incredible personal work, often in demanding water colors: paintings of the sea and California coast around Carmel and Monterey… paintings of his travels in China, Europe and Africa… portraits of people he met and knew … and the amazing sketches and paintings derived from two summers, 1949 and 1951, travelling with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus. “Herb Ryman put the smell of sawdust into paint,” said the world-famous clown, Emmett Kelly.

But it was his signature work for Walt Disney that made him not just a Disney Legend, but one of the most influential artists of our time. That first overall drawing -- in pencil – of Walt’s concept for Disneyland (drawn with Walt at his side over a weekend) made Herb Ryman a true legend in his field. It enabled Roy O. Disney, the company’s Chairman, to convince the bankers to finance Disneyland. Yet in his modesty, Herb called it “just a cartoon pencil drawing with a little color on top of it, but Roy got the money – so I guess it turned out all right.”

Herb Ryman was arguably Walt Disney’s favorite artist. In the years that followed, he introduced the public to many new Disney projects: The Matterhorn and New Orleans Square, Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, the entrance and major pavilions in Epcot, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. His body of work is unequaled in the Disney Park vernacular.

Yet it was something else that made Herb Ryman unique and special. Perhaps it was his friend, author Alex Haley of Roots fame, who said it best: “There was nothing that Herbert talked more about than young artists. He felt that if there was any way he personally could help train, be a mentor to, be a big brother to, or be any other role that was helpful and positive, that was what he wanted his life to be mostly about. And so this Foundation, which will lend assistance to and help guide young artists to manifest the spirit that was within Herb Ryman, is probably the best thing that could be done, I believe, in his honor.”

And so as we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Ryman Arts, we recall the words of our namesake: “Our civilization,” Herbert Dickens Ryman wrote, “can only maintain itself by passing on our dreams and our talents to the next generation.”

We at Ryman Arts rededicate ourselves to that vision, and that dream.

 

Image: Herbert D. Ryman