Drawn to It
Disney’s first background artist turns 94 in his beloved Carmel.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
From covert meetings in Pebble Beach with Salvador Dali to painting the background art for the world’s first animated feature-length film, Stanley Spohn’s life has been a mythical romp through popular culture.
Today he lays serenely in his khaki recliner, dozing in the early afternoon sun, while the pitter-patter of his grandchildren’s footsteps paint the wood floors of the cottage he designed and built more than 40 years ago.
Spohn, who will turn 94 years old in a week, wears no hearing aids and only dons glasses to read. He’s jovial, soft-spoken and spry. His Carmel bungalow billows with his original art and oriental rugs.
On the wall behind him is an oil painting of the last cannery that used to sit where the aquarium now is. To the right of the painting is another that he painted of the Fleurs de France, a scene he says “every artist he has ever known has painted.”
“DINNERS WITH DALI WERE FUN. DALI HAD A CHILDLIKE FASCINATION ABOUT EVERYTHING.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Spohn started taking classes in fine art at UCLA, then received a scholarship to Art Center College, where he finished his degree. As a hobby, he enjoyed designing houses. The first home he designed, which was later bought by Marlon Brando, was on Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills in the late 1930s. One day while Spohn was moving in his art supplies, a neighbor approached him.
“He asked me if I would be interested in doing art for a fairly new Los Angeles studio making the world’s first animated feature film,” Spohn says. “I guess he had seen me carrying my easels and canvases into the house.”
The film studio was Disney Studios and the film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, Walt interviewed Spohn for the job personally.
“Walt [Disney] was hands-on with everything,” Spohn says. “He would drop in on the artists constantly and watch over our shoulders.”
Spohn’s work with the beloved studio didn’t end with Snow White. He also painted the background art for Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi and Fantasia.
While Spohn was working for Disney Studios, Walt sent him on several trips to Pebble Beach to meet with Salvador Dali about a secret 3-D animation project.
“Dinners with [Dali] were fun,” Spohn reminisces. “Dali had a childlike fascination about everything and was an incredible painter.”
Though the Dali-Disney project never took flight, Spohn fell in love with the Monterey area during his visits, especially Carmel.
Upon finding the perfect corner lot across from the Sunset Center, Spohn began designing his ultimate abode. The home resembles the art he created for Fantasia: abstract and years ahead of its time.
Spohn didn’t want to cut down the sprawling cypresses that resembled the trees in A Night on Bald Mountain, so he built around them, creating a unique enclave in the tradition of constable design he has called home for several decades.
These days, Spohn puts all his energy into spending time with his two daughters, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Even when Spohn tells his fabled first person tales of the past he gets sidetracked on tangents involving the people he loves. He may no longer take annual trips to Europe to sketch the rolling countryside, but he continues to paint and always surrounds himself with his family.
“He guarantees at least one painting a year, for Christmas cards he sends out to the family,” Spohn’s grandson, Chris Twomey, says. “But he usually completes about four paintings every year.”