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The Ryman Centennial: The Occidental Tourist

Slide Rock by Herbert Ryman, 1932

Despite his humble Midwestern beginnings, Disney artist and Imagineer Herbert Ryman eventually developed a love for world travel. Many of his early excursions were in the American southwest, where his road trips helped develop his artistic skills until his career took off at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932. The painting above, a scene from Arizona, is a result of those early travels. It would be his later globetrotting adventures, though, that would inform his worldview and help shape some of his work that is most relevant here – his conceptual paintings for EPCOT’s World Showcase in the 1970s and 80s.

Ironically, though, Ryman was initially somewhat chagrined at his lack of worldly experience. Working on the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth at MGM, he started to feel the call of the outside world. He’d worked so hard on creating these exotic scenes for various films, but that was just film fakery – Herb wanted to see these things first-hand.

Things came to a head in 1936. Ryman, fatigued by four years of nonstop work, was sketching set designs for Mutiny on the Bounty. A chance conversation with actor Donald Crisp led to an exhortation for young Ryman to take a break from his work and see a bit of the world while he was still young. Mulling this advice, Herb received that same day a letter from his cousin, Halvern Norris, who was serving in the American Foreign Service as Vice Consul to Siam. Norris was wrapping up his five-year stint in Bangkok, and in his lengthy letter he encouraged Ryman to pay a visit and see the sights. Satisfied with the import of this coincidence, Herb took leave from MGM and headed to the steamship office to book passage to Siam. He didn’t have to worry about paying; in his pocket at the time were thirteen paychecks from Metro, all uncashed because the workaholic Ryman had not been able to leave his office long enough to visit the bank.

It turned out that for the price of passage across the Pacific Ocean to Siam, Herb could take the long way there and in the process see the world. For no extra cost he was able to circumnavigate the globe, stopping in the Caribbean, Europe, and several other points before eventually reaching Bangkok. For someone worried about his lack of travels, Ryman was about to catch up in high style.

From Ryman’s sketchbook comes this study of the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome

After circling the globe, with many stops along the way, Ryman reached Siam. While his adventures there were too innumerable to list here, it led to a number of fascinating and coincidental meetings. Prominent diplomats. Artists. Authors. The royal family. The Peking Man. It had to be pretty exciting for a young guy from Illinois. But, like so many young people in extraordinary times, Ryman wouldn’t really understand the full import of his travels until later. He didn’t realize, at the time, what was really happening around him as he trekked through Indochina – the first stirrings in the east that would eventually lead to a World War.

The Junk Loading Rice, Pak Nam – Gulf of Siam, 1936

But these concerns weren’t on Herb’s mind. In his travels from 1936-37, he saw everything that he could possibly fit in to his itinerary. Despite the fact that the world was a much larger and stranger place in those days, though, even in the distant outposts of the Orient people knew about Hollywood. And, whenever locals would find out Herb worked in pictures in Hollywood, he was invariably asked about one person. Not any of the legends of MGM, where he actually worked – Garbo, Gable, or even Lassie. Everyone wanted to know one thing: Did Herb know Walt Disney?

He didn’t. But, after answering truthfully a few times and seeing the resultant disappointment and instant disinterest from curious strangers, Ryman decided to give the people what they wanted. “Yes, I know Walt Disney!”

Don’t be too hard on Herb – his harmless white lie was only a year or so distant from being 100% true.

“Four Faces of Siba”, 1936, was the product of a lengthy side-trip to Angkor Wat

From Siam, Ryman traveled northward to Japan, where the creeping hand of fascism led to a few uncomfortable interrogations at the hands of petty customs officials. A decision was made to visit China, despite the increasing chaos brewing in that country. Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek were faced with the prospect of battling Mao Tse-Tung and the communists to the west and invading Japanese troops to the east, but the situation was still stable in the major cities. Herb spent four months there in the village of Ba Ta Chu, in the hills outside Peking.

Herb stands outside his lodgings in Ba Ta Chu, 1936

His time in China would be productive artistically as well as socially; it would also leave him with a full portfolio of artwork which, as we’ve mentioned, would lead to an exhibition at Chouinard in Los Angeles and, subsequently, his career at Disney.

On the Long Trail, 1980 – “A watercolor painting done from the sketches made in my note books during that historic and critical winter of 1936-37 on the Gobi Desert and in Peking.”

The circle of life, eh?

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3 comments to The Ryman Centennial: The Occidental Tourist

  • RO93461

    When I see that Spook House model next to the refined and architecturally informed work of a master like Herb it gives pause.

  • It’s true… this is something that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s concerned me more and more over the years. I’m sure there are loads of talented artists at WDI these days, but the vast majority of concept art that is released anymore looks like it comes from a single artist. There’s nothing wrong with simple sketches, but these are always in a cartoony style and there’s never any of those elegant works like Ryman, Collin Campbell or Hench would turn out. Or character/atmosphere work like Marc Davis or Coates or Crump.

    It’s not like all the artists were relegated to the “older” generation either. But we’ve seen great conceptualists of the younger generation like Nina Rae Vaughn and so many others let go. I’m sure there are many reasons, though. The decline of the sponsor model means that there isn’t as much need for elegant oil paintings of proposed projects. And maybe it’s hard to put a fine art sheen on something like Laugh Floor. But it’s tough when you only get some digital sketches, all very cartoony, for each project.

    People like Herb and John Hench were serious minds when it came to art, and I think there might be a lack of broad world experience that is missing in training these days. I worry the same thing in animation, where years of apprenticeship have been replaced by coursework at CalArts.

    But I can’t draw a straight line, so I shouldn’t talk…

  • RO93461

    If you want to see what the lost art of drafting and architecture was, look at old copies of “Pencil Points” Magazine. It captured the commentary and skills of the artists that were also draftsmen. I love to collect them and just wish I was that good. No clicking, dragging or dropping to lean on, just talent. Their skills and education ran deep and based on divine proportion, not Adobe. That rich education does not come with the download for SketchUp. Theirs was the last generation to recite poetry. As for the art itself, it came from an ethic to consult historical research. Ryman once said history “grabbed him by the throat” and that “bad taste costs no more” so do it right.

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