Exploring Project Neverland: Playfulness and the Creative Art Process

“I won’t grow up. I don’t want to go to school, just to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule.” Graphic designers, creative souls whose livelihoods depend on maintaining a youthful, unfettered imagination, can relate to this song from the 1954 Peter Pan musical starring Mary Martin. Even grumpy old Paul Rand, with all his silly Modernist rules, recognized the value of child’s play. And “Project Neverland,” an art exhibition currently at Burbank’s Center Stage Gallery, celebrates the spirit of Peter’s exuberant flights of fantasy.

Anika Orrock’s Tiger Lily, who “staves off the altar with a hatchet.”

A follow-up to CSG’s popular “Curiouser and Curiouser” show, which I featured here for Print, “Neverland” presents bold new visions by forty professional artists working in film, animation, illustration, and comics. Each produced their own, unique takes on J.M. Barrie’s original 1911 novel, using a variety of styles, techniques, and media, including watercolor, sculpture, and digital painting. And the exhibit will be up until next Sunday, June 11th.

Many of these artists attended the opening reception, along with notable celebrities in the animation world whose involvement with Disney dates back to the 1950s, such as Margaret Kerry, who served as a model for Tinker Bell’s character and voice of the red-headed mermaid for that Peter Pan, and the legendary Floyd Norman, whose illustrative 60-year art career includes work on features from Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book to Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. Also on hand was author Mindy Johnson, film historian, educator, and author of Tinker Bell: An Evolution as well as the new, soon to be released Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation. And when I asked Mindy about her reaction to the show, this is what she had to say:

[Related: Curious Pictures & Curiouser Conversations: 15 Artists in Wonderland]

“Many of the great illustrators and artists of the 20th Century interpreted J.M. Barrie’s masterpiece Peter Pan. Arthur Rackham, Mabel Lucie Attwell, Roy Best, and many others shared their distinctive views of Peter, the Darling Children, Lost Boys, Mermaids, and Pirates. Walt Disney recognized the rich visual possibilities within this extraordinary world and memorable characters of Barrie’s Neverland. For nearly 15 years, top artists at Disney Studios explored and interpreted this grand adventure before their final animated feature film was released in 1953. Today, Barrie’s story continues to enchant and delight generations, as vividly evident with the artists of Project Neverland. This exceptional collection of newly envisaged imagery from today’s top talent reinvigorates this timeless tale with inspired, fresh adventures, ‘past the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning!’”

Casey Robin

Casey Robin at the opening reception; photo by Joan Gallant Dooley

“Project Neverland” was the brainchild of “Curiouser” curator Casey Robin, a freelance illustrator and visual development artist who’s worked for Disney Feature Animation division and provides art and design for books, toys, and textiles. To assemble the show Casey enlisted Anika Orrock, who ran her own graphic design and branding company before changing careers to become a freelance storyboard artist with a particular passion for baseball-related illustrations.

One significant development from Alice’s Wonderland to Peter’s Neverland is a section that’s been set aside to display preliminary sketches and other renderings that provide a peek into the artists’ thought processes and an informal how-to lesson in artmaking. In our conversation below Casey and Anika discuss this and a number of other topics such as the importance of mentorships and of graphic design for artists, the importance of gallery exhibitions for youngsters, and the uselessness of a technology-based education in acquiring a successful, satisfying creative career.

opening reception photo by M. Dooley

Michael Dooley: What’s your personal relationship with Peter Pan?

Anika Orrock: The story of Peter Pan was always one of my favorites growing up. And while the show is based on Barrie’s original story rather than the Disney version, I have a very close personal relationship with the Disney version. Right as I began junior high, an animation art gallery and store opened up in the strip mall that happened to be on my way home from school. At that point, I was already an animation nut. I pretty much spent nearly every day there after school and most weekends. He would set up a canvas folding chair for me and just let me park in front of every cell and background and draw from them. I don’t know how, but for a time he was getting original background after background and cel after cel from Peter Pan. I had never seen anything like that in real life. The clouds, Big Ben, the bedroom. The art was every bit as magical as the story itself and it became a favorite.

Casey Robin: I grew up with a few adaptations of Barrie’s Peter Pan stories. My favorites were the musical version starring Mary Martin, Stephen Spielberg’s Hook, and of course, the Disney version. My favorite way to end a day at Disneyland is by gliding over Neverland in “Peter Pan’s Flight.” It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I sat down and read Barrie’s story as he wrote it. I was initially thrown by the turn-of-the-century language, but as I read deeper, Barrie’s Neverland took root deep in my imagination.

Brigitte Roka

How did the show come together?

Robin: Anika and I were introduced to one another by Alishea Gibson, my co-curator for “Curiouser and Curiouser.” We had breakfast together more than a year before the new show was to open. As Anika and I talked, we realized that we shared common goals: bringing art and literature to the community, creating opportunities for artists to shine and support one another. By the end of the meal, she volunteered to be my co-curator for the Neverland show. A few months later, we brought our ideas to Tina Price, founder of the Creative Talent Network. Tina gave the show a name – “Project Neverland” – and a home, her Center Stage Gallery.

There were several artists returning from the “Curiouser” show, but we wanted to make room for new people as well. In November, we roamed the aisles of the CTN Animation Expo.

Orrock: Casey and I shared a table at the Expo and literally just walked the floor and took notes, collected business cards of artists that we really liked whose work we’d never seen. I also wanted to add to the community of artists beyond Los Angeles by inviting some of my favorite Bay Area artists.

Robin: Some of our artists were found on Instagram, others from recommendations. What they shared was this: a unique voice and a passion for stories.

Orrock: Casey and I have very different personal taste in art, although there is a small cross-section of similar preferences. But really, I felt the primary goal should be to omit personal preference and simply involve talented artists working in a variety of industries, regardless of their level of notoriety or recognition. For example, storyboard artists and comic artists are rarely invited to participate in shows because there’s often a misconception that they are either incapable of, or not practiced in, creating actual finished pieces of art.

Because this was a show emphasizing process and community, I personally wanted to see a great deal of variety in artists and their backgrounds so we could gain insight into a variety of different processes. To me, this was the most interesting approach.

Nic Gregory

Nic Gregory at the opening reception; photo by M. Dooley

Casey, how is “Neverland” different from “Curiouser”?

Robin: Anika, as co-curator, brought her own sensibilities to the show, just as Alishea had done with “Curiouser.” She brought a strong graphic design sense that helped define the show visually. There is a theme of maps and exploration running through the entire show. A lot of that is thanks to Anika, who created our literal map for the show. The gallery had prints of Anika’s Neverland map made, so that visitors could take a little bit of the journey home with them.

“Project Neverland” is a very process-oriented show. We made it a goal early on to share the journey of each artist, almost as if they were literally guiding the viewer to Neverland.

Danny Von Der Ahe

Tell me more about your focus on process.

Orrock: The idea for including sketches was largely Tina’s idea, and it was a great one! We were really just trying to figure out an alternative to the typical book that accompanies the show. A sketchbook was mentioned and the idea turned into something bigger entirely! It’s my favorite aspect of the show!

Robin: We had an idea early on that, for this show, the creative journey was as important as the finished artwork. So often students are afraid to show their preliminary work, afraid of anything that is less than a pristine, polished final picture. But those of us who have worked in the industry for a while know the value of the rough sketch, the thumbnail that gets the idea down. We wanted to show not just our finished work, but more importantly how we work. I hope it helps to dispel the belief that ideas are born into the world clean and whole. No, ideas are scribbled into the world, or plotted, or smudged. The creative process is rarely a tidy one.

With my sketches, the important thing was to find the picture that best told the story, then keep the essence of the idea alive all the way through to the final. My thumbnails are deliberately rough, so that I’m not tempted off the path by pretty drawings.

Orrock: My sketches are always very messy. It’s where I work everything out. But I’ve also learned that I almost always use my first or second sketch as the basis for a final illustration because this is where the initial emotion and expression comes through. I have the idea, I see it, and I scribble it. When I tweak and fine-tune something too much, it loses its initial essence bit by bit, and I have to revisit that moment when I meander too far down the path to perfectionism.

My sketches are the reason I reached my goal with my personal piece for the show. I came up with 20 different incarnations of Tiger Lily, but the wild eyed, rebellious, good-luck-taking-me-for-a-bride expression I wanted only existed in those two massive messes of Sharpie, so I went with that.

Initially, many artists were hesitant to share. They work hard to create something they can present to the world and that’s it: no one needs to know what hell we went through or how terrible our first passes were! But that’s just it: that’s the best part. Because every artist has horrible work and ideas and every artist has a moment where they get exactly what they’re going for, or even better, they didn’t know what they were going for until they threw some lines down. It evens the playing field and shows we all work in different-but-equal ways. Once all the artists saw that aspect of the show laid out on display, they loved it!

I think process is one of the most intriguing aspects of art, for both fellow artists and non-artists. I think particularly in the industries of the artists involved, where story is typically at the center of any creation, there are so many layers to what’s “going on” in a final piece of art. I always love to know how an artist arrived at what they did. What inspired them, what they were thinking, what they read and how they saw it play out in their mind’s eye.

Looking at an artist’s studio space is like taking a peek at the material manifestation of their inner workings. I love seeing other artists’ spaces, so I loved the gallery consultant’s idea to place all the sketches together in a “studio.” I’m always inspired by the processes of others. It gives me insight into my own.

And for non-artists, it’s an unusual opportunity to see process.

Robin: People like seeing the process. It’s like a glimpse into a secret world, and each artist’s approach is unique. Visitors to the gallery have fun matching the preliminary work in our sketch room to the finished pieces on the walls.

Scott Anderson

Since we’re talking process, how has your own educational process most benefitted you in your “real world” practices?

Robin: My college education is of little use to me in my daily work. At least, the part of my college education that focused on animation. It was all about how to use 3-D software, while I was much more interested in storytelling and character building. I had to do a lot of independent study to learn anything that I considered useful. I learned animation essentials from books, DVD extras, and other artists.

One stage of my education that has been extremely valuable to me is the two years that I spent at Westmont College. At Westmont, I received a broad liberal arts education, with emphasis on literature, art history, and studio art. My illustration teacher, Scott Anderson,  helped me find my style in my earliest years. He’s actually one of the artists in “Project Neverland.” It’s amazing to be able to work alongside my former teacher, to be able to offer him something at last, after he gave me so much of his time and attention.

Orrock: Formally, I would say that having earned a degree in graphic design from San Jose State University has been tremendously beneficial. Design is a versatile and very handy skill. It informs everything I do, and I don’t think artists are taught enough about design. Not just spatially or with line in an actual drawing, but, for example, nothing ruins a beautiful piece of art – for a display, magazine, website, promotion, etc. – like slapping a horribly chosen typeface across the front of it. It kills me how many great artists are terrible designers!

Informally, I would say the greatest and most valuable process of my education has been the longest forming one. It started with an incredible class I took at the Animation Collaborative with the great Chris Sasaki. I went in expecting to be light years behind the learning curve. What I actually learned was not at all what I expected to take away, and that was that I was inherently valuable – ahead of the learning curve, even – for the way I think. Talent is a good springboard, but technique and craft can always be learned and honed. Our individual paths are unique and important and are what form the stories we’ll tell, the richer the better!

I’m learning every day that I’m going to continue to get better at what I do because I choose to. Things like my age, educational institution, my path: they aren’t in any way deficits. Everything only adds to my story, and my work.

Elsa Chang

opening reception photo by Joan Gallant Dooley

“Neverland”‘s family-friendly Mothers’ Day arts-and-crafts and storytime event – and the kid-friendly nature of the exhibition in general – also serves to educate kids about the pleasures of gallery-going, yes?

Robin: Yes! Love of art often begins in childhood. I spent a lot of time in museums and galleries as a kid, and it helped prime me for a career in the arts.

With such a child-focused story at the core of this show, it seemed only natural to invite the children of the community to be a part of it. Another “Project Neverland” artist, Alina Chau, suggested that we host a Mothers’ Day event, which seemed perfect. The importance of mothers is a vital theme in Barrie’s book. Peter brings Wendy to Neverland as a mother to the Lost Boys, and yet – as we discover later – he hates mothers. By the end of the story it’s apparent that Peter was wrong on this count; mothers are among the most important people in the world. Alina and I invited children into the gallery to make Neverland-inspired cards for their mothers. We even picked up some crayons and colored some cards ourselves.

Caroline McFarlane-Watts

opening reception photo by Joan Gallant Dooley

What other projects are you currently interested in exploring?

Robin: Gosh, there are so many. I ate up fairy tales as a kid. I was the weird one who knew the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella” – more blood – and the original ending of “The Little Mermaid” – much sadder.

Orrock: If I were to do another show, I’d love to see a variety of artists’ interpretations of the world of L. Frank Baum.

I’m lucky enough to do quite a bit of work with Major League baseball. I’m a baseball nerd and am currently working on a couple of book projects involving my baseball illustrations. I’m particularly excited about an upcoming collaborative project involving baseball, story, illustration, and music by some incredibly talented musicians. All things I love!

I’m also looking forward to exploring the work of Ray Bradbury on an illustrative level. I’m not a science fiction enthusiast, per se. But his work is so visually juicy and he’s such a brilliant writer, I can’t wait to dive in!

Robin: Right now, I’m turning my hand to a personal project, a book which I’m both writing and illustrating. It’s a series of illustrated middle grade fantasy novels retelling the myth of Medusa. It’ll take me to Ancient Greece, and I’ll be gone for as long as the story needs me.

Whatever worlds I visit after that, whatever shows I might help curate, I want to make sure that there are always a variety of voices. Retellings keep the tales fresh. I don’t see stories as static things, where there’s one “best” version and that’s it. Instead, I envision a world where storytellers weave pictures with both old threads and new. There should not be a single Wonderland, but many. Many Sleeping Beauties. Many Cinderellas. Many Red Riding Hoods on many paths. And, of course, many roads to Neverland.

Nicola Hwang

Alina Chau

Elise Packard

opening reception photo by Joan Gallant Dooley

Anette Hoffmann

Junyi Wu

Alishea Gibson

Sunmee Joh


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