This week from our Because I’m a Lady series, we sat down with illustrator, letterer, and author Ann Shen to chat about her being an Artist in Residence at the Wonderground Gallery in Downtown Disney and how she channels her love of Disney into her work.
When did you discover your love of art?
From a very young age, I always loved drawing and painting. I would draw my family, princesses, mermaids, animals, houses, castles, flowers – all things I loved in my treasured picture books.
How did you get started as a professional illustrator?
I went to art school after graduating from college, and studied Illustration at Art Center College of Design. After school, I worked in-house graphic design jobs while moonlighting as a freelance illustrator. I was constantly making new work at night, sending it out to art directors, signing up for craft fairs and art shows just to get my work out there. When my illustration work really started to pick up and I got a literary agent, I decided to make the leap to work for myself as a professional illustrator, and I’ve been on my own ever since.
When did your love of Disney begin?
From birth! My dad worked at the Disneyland Hotel since before I was born, and retired from there a couple years ago. So, I grew up visiting Disneyland, and often my mom would take me to the Hotel just to visit my dad at work and watch the dancing fountains. My first job after high school was at the Fantasyland stores inside Disneyland. It’s a big part of my core.
How does Disney inspire your artistic design?
Disney has such a wonderful history of incredible appeal and story in its work, and that has shaped my approach to the art I make. I’ve been super inspired by the artists who’ve worked on Disney animated features – Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Freddie Moore, Marc Davis, and Glen Keane. Their approaches to art were so genius in their own unique ways, and my artist development owes a great debt to them and being able to study their work, figure out what was so appealing, and then translate how to apply that to my work in my own way.
Where else do you look for inspiration for your work?
I’m inspired by a lot of mid-century artists and designers – they really mastered simple and elegant design. Picture books are a huge inspiration for me – I collect vintage Little Golden books and some of my favorites are from Alice & Martin Provensen, M. Sasek, Charley Harper, and J.P. Miller. I also really love fashion and advertising illustration from the ’50s and ’60s – some of my favorite artists include Rene Gruau, Jon Whitcomb, and Robert McGinnis. Flea markets and antique shops are also a huge source for inspiration for me; I love discovering new-to-me books, fabrics, furniture, and clothes. I’m also inspired by photographers and filmmakers who construct magical worlds in their work – people like Tim Walker, Wes Anderson, and Colleen Atwood.
Which Disney character are you most like and why?
Tinkerbell! I’m fiercely loyal to my friends and I love creating magical things – we’re also about the same size.
You’re returning to the Wonderground Gallery at Downtown Disney this month as the Artist in Residence. What do you enjoy most about that experience?
It’s truly such an honor to appear at the Wonderground Gallery. I really enjoy getting to interact with people who like my work and discover it for the first time there. Seeing the look on their faces before they know I’m the artist is a true measure of how my work fares out there in the wild and it’s the best feeling to know that my work brings joy and resonates with people! Being a full-time freelancer can be isolating sometimes because I’m often creating in my own studio bubble, so interacting with people face to face is really fun.
You also have two new Disney pieces coming out this weekend at the Disneyland Resort! Can you tell us about the inspiration behind each one?
Yes! I’m so excited to be releasing my first two Disney pieces with Wonderground Gallery! The first, called “Centaurettes in Bloom”, features the glamorous and charming centaurettes from The Pastoral Symphony scene of Fantasia. They were my favorite part of Fantasia growing up, and the beauty, color, and enchantment of that scene has inspired much of my work now.
My second piece is called “Dressed in Dreams”, and it features many of the Disney dresses through the years. I love fashion, and all these iconic dresses would be a dream to own – so I did the next best thing, which is paint a whole wardrobe of dresses so everyone can have all of them hanging in their house.
Beyond Disney, you also have two inspiring projects, your book, “Bad Girls Throughout History,” and your “Fearless and Fabulous” Facebook Sticker Pack. How do you think art can inspire change?
I think that art has the incredible possibility to shape the way we see the world. As an artist, I have the opportunity to create things I’d like to see, and that includes books and projects that reflect the beautiful, diverse world that we live in, and the things that bring us joy, love, and hope. I think it’s incredibly valuable for people to see themselves in the art that we create and consume, because it makes people feel that their experiences are valid and important – and also helps us feel less alone in this world. Everyone has something different to bring to the table, and so many people are limited by their own belief system of what is possible when they don’t see themselves being represented.
What advice would you give to other artists looking to get their work out there?
Make work that you love, not what you think you should make, and work on your craftsmanship as much as possible. And then share it with as many people as you can – you never know where it can take you!
Ann Shen returns to WonderGround Gallery in Downtown Disney April 7-April 30. You can find her appearance schedule now at Disney Theme Parks Merchandise Events. You can also find more details on Ann’s Artist Showcase this weekend at Off The Page now!