RIP, Art Stevens

Art Stevens

I was out of town when this news emerged a couple weeks ago but I wanted to make mention of the passing of Disney animator and director Art Stevens. Stevens passed away on May 22 at age 92. His career was notable in that he worked at a single studio—Disney—for nearly four-and-a-half decades. There’s a solid obit at which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him.

In the Disney hierarchy, Stevens was not considered one of the star animators, but he made many important contributions to the studio. He was one of Ward Kimball’s two primary animators (the other being Julius Svendsen) during all of Kimball’s experimental projects (Toot Whistle, Plunk and Boom, the space specials, It’s Tough To Be a Bird and Dad, Can I Borrow the Car, among others). Also, The Saga of Windwagon Smith was largely his and Svendsen’s project although directing credit went to Charles Nichols.

I had the opportunity to interview Stevens on a few occasions because of my research on John Dunn and Fifties animation, and he was one of the friendliest and most cordial people you could imagine. It always struck me as interesting that though Stevens worked at Disney his entire career, he was the farthest thing from your typical idea of a Disney animator. Looking at his sketchbooks, a lot of them filled with cats, he obviously enjoyed cartooning, caricature and design far more than the academic drawing we associate with a lot of the classic Disney artists. Stevens’s first gig as a full-fledged animator was on Peter Pan where he was assigned a lot of the marching sequences with the Lost Boys. But just as he had achieved the highest peak in the Disney animation department, he jumped ship and accepted an invitation to join Kimball’s unit where he could do more stylized and cartoonier animation, like the hilarious ‘popping strings’ section that he did in Toot Whistle. It’s pretty clear that he preferred fun and experimentation over the traditional Disney product.

On a sadder note, for the past few years, I’d been trying to get ASIFA-Hollywood to honor Stevens with a Winsor McCay Award for lifetime contributions to the art of animation. Stevens never received the recognition from ASIFA-Hollywood despite my multiple attempts. I’m not privy to the politics or Stevens’s history that denied him this recognition, but I think it’s nothing short of disgraceful for an animation organization to ignore somebody like Stevens. With nearly everybody else who is deserving of that award now dead, it bothered me greatly to see somebody as qualified as Stevens not receive it year after year. It’s too late now to do anything about it, but perhaps we can take solace in the knowledge that despite his passing, Stevens’s contributions to the art form will continue to live on for many years to come, and an ultimately useless award from an even more useless organization won’t do anything to change that fact.

Drawing by Art Stevens
A couple model sheets by Art Stevens for the short Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967). Click for larger versions.
Drawing by Art Stevens

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