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 on Saturday, June 3, 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, Wash., 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.
“I looked up photos of old planes, and normally you see them in flight,” says Lee, who has done illustrations for Disney’s Princess comics. “What kind of gives you the illusion of flight is they’re very high up – the ground looks like a bunch of patches and splotches and so forth – and I kind of tried to tie that in with the Irvine land there, though I know they don’t have as many fields anymore.”
Steven Daily’s acrylic painting, “War Torn,” shows the bull in flight with a full load of other Disney characters such as Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Dumbo, as well as a healthy supply of armaments.
“I had heard rumors that Walt couldn’t join the Army because he needed glasses or something like that, so he did his best to contribute what he had,” says Daily, who lived in Garden Grove during high school and resides in Pasadena today. “I just found it fascinating to take these iconic kid characters and put them in such adult situations.”
Daily, who has done contract work for Lucas Arts and Disney Studios, often in a lowbrow or street art style, said that World War II had long fascinated him, making him an easy sell when asked to contribute work to the exhibit.
“When they asked me to do this I jumped at it because I love those designs,” he says.
Those designs get a good portion of the overall show, both as stand-alone art – the designs on their own – as well as in photographs of how they showed up in many different settings. There’s a photo of a young Walt Disney in 1931 with the very first insignia Disney did for the military, Mickey Mouse atop a goose with the Statue of Liberty in the background, a design contributed to a unit of Curtiss Helldiver biplanes based at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.
Other photos demonstrate how broadly the Disney art roamed, one showing a French pilot stationed in the United Kingdom after Germany invaded his homeland, next to a plane on which Donald Duck, standing on the British Isles, is pulling a worm with a face like Hitler’s from the soil of France.
Often the art would be geared toward the duties being performed by a particular unit. An insignia done for the USS Mercy hospital ship shows Snow White as a nurse, Dopey as her battered and bandaged patient. Thumper, Bambi’s rabbit buddy, was painted on the fuselage of some B-29 bombers, which were used to thump the enemy forces with their explosive cargo.
A photo of one of the Thumper-adorned bombers is also a solemn reminder that the Disney logos, while cheerful and fun, were employed in a life-and-death struggle. The aircraft in the photo, we learn from the caption at its side, was shot down on May 29, 1945, all 12 men on board losing their lives.
And sometimes Disney responded to requests from the troops, or in one particularly fascinating case, a prisoner of war camp. Emmet Cook drew a picture of Donald Duck behind bars on a postcard, the name of his POW camp, Stalag Luft III, at the top, and the caption, “I wanted wings,” at the bottom. It became a popular drawing that other prisoners wanted and eventually one reached Disney, who asked Hank Porter to make it into a proper insignia, sending it back into the military for troops to use as they pleased.
The exhibit opens on Saturday, with a special opening reception from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 4, at which most if not all of the contemporary artists will be present. Staniec says he thinks the intersection of World War II and Disney, two areas with plenty of fans and followers, will make this show a hit, which it already is with him.
“I still geek out reading and looking at these,” he says. “The fact that 1,200 insignia were created by Disney during World War II? It just blows my mind.”
Walt and the Flying Bull
When: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursday-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday from June 3 through Aug. 13.
Where: Great Park Gallery, Palm Court Arts Complex
How much: Free
For more: 949-724-6880 or ocgp.org