THE LIFE OF A BORDER DWELLER
Animator Turned Creativity Mentor, DAVE ZABOSKI
Speaks to CTN About
the Endless Possibilities for Artists to Shape the 21st Century.
Creative Consultant and Writer, Rhett Wickham Reports.
DAVE ZABOSKI speaks with an enthusiastic confidence that is infectious and hypnotic – an ideal demeanor for an artist whose personal vision of the future is ablaze with the endless creative wealth yet to be mined across the globe. Of the many hats Zaboski has worn since he started working in animation nearly twenty years ago, he has spent most of the past decade inspiring creativity in others; helping them “navigate” creation and “clarifying their direction to being even more creative.”
It doesn’t seem so unusual if you think about it, for a former Disney animator to turn his attention to opening up the creative potential of others. After all, what is an animator if not someone who finds endless possibilities where anyone else would have seen nothing more than a blank white sheet of paper.
Given one of his earliest experiences at Disney Animation, the fates seemed to have been preparing Dave for his mentoring role from the outset.
“I was awarded a national internship where I was one of three guys that got the position at Disney”, remembers Dave, speaking from his studio in Chatsworth California, “but I came from a non-animation background – I was an illustration major at Art Center College of Design, so I was studied in draftsmanship and I was a very good draftsman but I did not understand animation. Animation is a whole other level of draftsmanship, it’s drawing in four dimensions, you’re drawing across time. So I was working on “Beauty and the Beast” and very, very excited to be there but felt really inadequate to the task. So I went to the morgue (now the ARL). I made an appointment, with either Doug or Dennis who were the guys who ran the morgue, three times a week to go in and study animation.
It was so incredibly exciting, because I was always a fan of cartoons, but never a student of them. So, to become a student and to be able to have access to the Mickey Mouse drawings from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and to be able to hold them in my hands and to look at all the incredible drawings that had been done by Disney animators over time, and to look at the drafts!
So I went in there one morning to study, and I’d always do it before I started work, so I got in there early one morning and there was an old man sitting at the table, and he had all these villains spread out all over the table, and I went to check-out the draft for “The Jungle Book”, I wanted to have a look at the Jungle Book drawings and I wanted to look at all that beautiful double-bounce stuff of Baloo in the Bear Necessities. Doug says “Hey Dave, I’ve got a treat for you, I want you to meet Ollie Johnston. Ollie Johnston this is Dave Zaboski!”
Dave mimics his younger self, feigning polite interest, at best. “I said, ‘eh..nice to meet you Mr. Johnston’ …I didn’t know who he was! I had no idea. I had never studied animation, so I didn’t know who the Nine Old Men were, I didn’t know The Illusion of Life, it was just this nice old guy in there, you know? So he and I were sitting there and we were talking, and he was working on the Villains book, and so he had all these Villains out. I didn’t know he was working on the Villains book I was just like ‘Hey, those are cool villains’ and he said ‘yeah’ and …*sigh* …so I was looking through the drafts to get all the double-bounce stuff, and was looking through them and I thought ‘Okay, here they are, great. Baloo, Bear Necessities, here’s the dialogue, Johnston…Oh my Gosh!… wait..and here’s another one…Johnston. Johnston, Johnston, Johnston…every single scene that I was looking up, all of those incredible scenes were all Ollie Johnston, and he was sitting in the room with me!”
Zaboski had the experience of a lifetime that morning, alone with the man who, unbeknownst to Dave until he was actually face to face with him, had been his hero all those years. He turned to Johnston and said “Oh my God…you drew all these things.’ And he said ‘Well I guess I did, son, but that was a long time ago’. We just had a fabulous probably two and half hours in there together, talking about animation. I would flip through the scene and I would ask him questions about it, and …it was just a really marvelous experience to talk to somebody who invented animation, and I didn’t really realize he had until I looked at all that stuff.
I did finally ask him, if you were me, starting where I’m starting, what do you think the most important thing to remember is about animation? And he said ‘Make it entertaining.’”
Dave Zaboski took Ollie’s counsel to heart, and spent the next ten years entertaining audiences in performances that include the Genie in “Aladdin” under the supervision of Eric Goldberg, and what he recalls as his proudest achievement at Disney, animating John Smith in “Pocahontas”, under the supervision of John Pomeroy. The classical lines and elegant silhouettes of the character seem a natural fit for a man trained in the formal disciplines of painting and illustration. With the character’s design rooted in the work of J.C. Leyendecker, Zaboski’s superbly trained eye for human architecture and, by then, well studied and capable skill for moving it “across time” made for a perfect match.
Ten years after leaving Disney, however, Dave’s life looks a great deal different than he had imagined it. He never thought he would leave. Like so many artists, it never occurred to him that he would ever have to, let alone ever want to give up such a great job. When he started at Disney, Zaboski ran into hundreds of cast members who had been there forty years or longer – “Disney lifers” – and Dave simply figured he’d be one of them. But the “net present value” of the Eisner era forced the artist and hundreds of his colleagues to face a future that was different than they had imagined, and certainly one that didn’t have room for as many, if any, lifers on the lot.
“I think my skills and abilities now are farther than I thought they would be”, says Dave. “I love the vision and the ability that I have right now. I think that my best choice was to not be at Disney anymore, to expand my abilities and my vision.”
Part of that expansion includes running a creative company called Spirit Flow Inc., committed to connecting people to their spirit through creative endeavors. “That means that we take on just about everything”, he laughs. His recent projects include a maquette and character design for a web-based game, a pair of portraits of the USC head football coach, Pete Carroll, done for a fundraiser, a banner design for an upcoming event, and an album cover for a band for whom he had recently done their logo.
“Sometimes it’s a little confusing. And the meditation right now is ‘how can I unify all of these projects in a cohesive and joyful way.’ And that’s the challenge, I think, for artists these days that want to expand their creativity in multiple directions but also keep some coherence. That’s been my challenge since leaving Disney. I often think what it would be like to be a baseball player and throw the ball as hard as you freakin’ can, once every five days. That’s what it felt like at Disney. All you did was draw cartoon characters. But then, I went to Paris, to work for Disney Studio in Paris, and living in Paris for a year I saw how much art is possible. I went to the Louvre Museum every Monday night and I …I …just…well, my brain exploded. You know!? Oh my God! I want to do that, and I want to do that…I want to be a painter, I want to be a sculptor! Sometimes exploding in all directions is a little dispersing.”
If anyone can manage it, it’s likely to be Zaboski. His personal discipline as an artist is rooted in a background that includes degrees in psychology and French literature from UCSB , as well as a degree in Organizational Psychology from the Universite de Poitiers in France, and a brief venture into law all before he found himself at Art Center, which brought him to Disney in 1990. Now, Dave Zaboski is not only navigating ways to have all of his own artistic passions flowing, and keep some cohesion in his personal vision, but he’s helping others to do the same – in whatever unique way the ‘creative’ takes shape for each individual client.
“Discipline is the unsung aspect of what makes an artist great. I think that one of the things about having an artistic profession is that you have to take it seriously. It’s a business. I don’t see myself as a ‘freelancer’, I see myself as a soloist. That changes the dynamic of how I manage my work and my discipline. The challenge with clients is that you’re responsible for everything. There’s no blame. It’s all you. One of the things that I find challenging about being a soloist is what I call managing the maybes. Everybody who sees my work likes it to a certain degree. It pleases them. Everybody says ‘oh, I’d like to have one of those’ but there’s a lot of maybes. The game is going from the maybes to the yes’s. Once they’re yes’s then we’re dancing, and that’s the part I love. Most of my clients are really amazing, delightful, impressive people who are happy to collaborate.”
Dave admits that it’s not a perfect world, in so far as life as a soloist is more of a juggling game than what he experienced at Disney – with real-world concerns that come more regularly than clients – mortgages, school tuition, and more. But the illusory guarantee of his safety at Disney is something he was more than happy to trade away for the life he has now. His focus seems sharper, and he continues to meditate on how the individual manifests what he or she is dreaming into being.
“For me, what’s most exciting about being an artist is being a border dweller; being that person who exists beyond the border of the known and brings what he finds back as a gift and as a purpose…to build a bridge back to the consciousness of the known. When animation wasn’t that for me, it was time to move on. So I feel that that purpose is deeper than it’s ever been – to be that border dweller, to be the person who is willing to go over the edge of the known and bring the treasure back.”
“Without meaning to get too mystical about it, I think that the scientists and the physicists and the artists are the Knights Errant, looking for some higher knowing, maybe even God. For me, it’s a very exciting time for the artistic minded, because the Knights Errant – the physicists and scientists that we sent out on a path to find the divine – came back and said ‘Well, you know, it seems there’s more than meets the eye.’ And the artist has said from the beginning ‘Yeah! We already knew that. That’s what we have been saying the whole time,” so now the artist is needed to complete the quest.
Zaboski refers to the work of former political speech writer and lecturer Daniel Pink, who writes about the trend toward right brain skills for the healthy growth of society in the future. “The left brain has taken us far enough, and the major skills of the future are going to be the right brain fields. So we’ve paid our doctors, our lawyers, our accountants, our engineers quite handsomely for the work that they’ve done in understanding reality, and their conclusion is ‘there’s more than meets the eye’, so we’re now looking at who else we can get the information from. There are skills that are coming into being like the ability to synthesize, the ability to draw what’s in your head,, the ability to describe poetically, the ability to tell a story – that are incredibly powerful skills that are now coming back into the social and cultural awareness. The world needs stories. And the artist is the one to tell them.”
Nowhere else is this renewed power of the artist more palpable than in Dave’s participation with an exciting and life changing organization called Humanity Unites Brilliance. The underlying idea behind HUB it is that people will change the planet not by changing awareness or changing behavior, but by connecting people to their true passion and true service to the world. If people live a life where they are expressing their own creativity and their own voice in the world, they live a life worth caring about and then they live on a planet worth caring about, and that’s how the world is changed.
This brand new organization uses a redesigned network marketing model where the product is self empowerment education, entrepreneurial and social networking, and humanitarian giving. In a way, the individual is the product and the purpose is self-empowerment. It’s about creating whatever you are creating in the world, more powerfully. The faculty of HUB are people like Dr. Jean Houston, Jack Canfield, Lynne Twist, Dr. Sue Morter, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Marie Diamond and Paul Scheele.
Dave was the featured artist at the official U.S. launch for HUB at Cal State Long Beach on June 21st of this year. “I created twelve, eight foot by four foot paintings that were a container for the room. There were five hundred people at this event, so I created a series of paintings that were, in its simplest form, the idea that the caterpillar emerges into a butterfly. Inside the paintings were layers, and layers of other messages, and other swirls and dances, and I used text from the Sufi poet, Hafiz, to enhance the paintings, so each painting was sort of a poem and all twelve of them existed on their own, and they also went together. Then, during each session I did drawings that were really what I’d call “visionary drawings” that expressed the themes and ideas that were in each presentation. Most of them I did on large water color paper at my seat, but two of them I did on two foot by five foot canvases that I had stretched specifically for this occasion – one for Barbara Marx Hubbard and one for the Pachamama Alliance. It was really just an incredible, incredible weekend.”
Humanity Unites Brilliance will be creating events all across the country all throughout the year, and anyone interested in learning more about this extraordinary organization and their work is encouraged to visit www.spiritflow.hubhub.org.
For Zaboski, one of the very best examples of an organization connecting people to their true voice is the Creative Talent Network. Using the analogy of the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly, the artist explains. “There are these cells in a caterpillar called imaginal cells, and they have absolutely no known use during the caterpillar’s life, but when the caterpillar goes into the cocoon, something really incredible happens. It completely breaks down its cellular structure and it becomes goop, and these imaginal cells float into this sea of goop. Half way through the period of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, if you cut open the cocoon you won’t find half butterfly – half caterpillar, you’ll find goop, and inside that goop are these imaginal cells. And somehow they get activated – by the voice and whisper of God, maybe? – they become activated and they start bringing into being, from this amorphous soup, differentiateable cells. They start calling to themselves other cells and they transform these cells into other imaginal cells and they create what’s called imaginal colonies. Now, when they’re small, the goop tries to kill these cells because it sees it as an immune problem…but sooner or later enough imaginal cells get called into being that they create these imaginal colonies and arrange themselves into order, and in a crazy cascade of transformation – butterfly becomes! To me, that is such a fabulous metaphor for the things that I see going on right now. The Creative Talent Network is absolutely an imaginal colony!”
Dave Zaboski Working
The calling from one imaginal being to another is tangible for Zaboski. Already he has connected through CTN with former Disney animators turned soloists Ellen Woodbury and Dave Pruiksma, both of whom Zaboski trained under when he first started at Disney. Like Zaboski, Woodbury is now sculpting from her home in Colorado, and Pruiksma creating from his home in Cambria.
Reconnecting has also renewed the artist with what he sees as a powerful and rewarding time at Disney, in spite of his decision to depart. “It was a very, very exciting time, and I’m really grateful for it. I know that there are a lot of guys who became bitter afterwards when things didn’t work, but you know we were as culpable as anybody in that relationship. We as artists, it’s our mission to hold a space in society and be the visionaries, to be the border dwellers, those people who go over the border to see into the unknown, bring something of value back and share it with others. That’s our mission, and I think we were as guilty as anybody in letting go of our power, saying we’re going to trust that Disney will take care of us and we’ll be provided for, instead of really seeing that we provide for ourselves. As a soloist, I’m not beholden to somebody else for my living, it’s my business. I have no bitterness toward Disney. I have nothing but the most beautiful fond memories of the people that I worked with and the training, the incredible training that I got there – training that says you have to live up to a legacy of magnificence, that you have to perform at an incredible level of your ability on time, you know?! There is an expectation of greatness that is in you, and that you will settle for nothing less, that’s what I take from that place, and I love it!”
In the end, Ollie Johnston’s long-ago lesson is still being passed on, as Zaboski reminds us when he observes that “animation is beginning to find its voice again. I think we relied too much on the tool and not on the heart. We’re starting to find our heart again. All of a sudden we got these brand new tools and we got seduced by how beautiful the tool was and we forgot that we were using the tools to tell a story. What I would say to a young artist is remember the story, remember it is entertainment, and that’s how we connect to each other. It’s okay to entertain.”
Dave Zaboski is co-teaching a three-day workshop in mid July in Chatsworth, CA, called Wonderous Stories, writing children’s stories with your children. The workshop allows families to connect to the stories inside of their own families and results in creating a book, complete with text and images you create during the course of the three days. Interested families can get more information by calling Dave Zaboski at (818) 445-8500.
To find out more about Dave please visit his website http://www.davezaboski.com/.