Pursuing Your Passions: Lessons Learned from Walt Disney
Walt Disney once said of the origins of his most famous character, “Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner.”
It’s a position that many artists can identify with today. It’s no secret that the economy has posed hardships to millions of people around the world, but for artists the situation is especially grim. Theatres are shutting their doors, grants are drying up, galleries and exhibition spaces are empty due to lack of patronage. The venues and means for artistic expression become more scarce as time goes by, making it a frustrating, lonely time to be an artist.
However, Disney’s story provides inspiration to struggling artists everywhere; perhaps it is only in these trying economic times that we find a new sense of relevance in his struggle and success.
Disney’s first animation studio in Kansas City went bankrupt, and a ruthless business deal in Hollywood left Disney bereft of his new animators, as well as the profitable characters he had created. Broke and unemployed, Disney began sketching the character that would become Mickey Mouse while taking the train back from Manhattan. It was in New York that he had parted ways with the Hollywood boss who stole Disney’s animators, creations and expected Disney to take a significant pay cut to stay with Universal Studios.
Any artist who has heard the words, “Why don’t you get a real job,” or who has been expected to perform for free because the venue is “doing you a big favor,” or has had their words or images appropriated without their consent, will identify with the anger Disney felt. His bosses thought they had him in a corner. Disney walked out.
After being re-worked by close friend and loyal collaborator Ubbe Iwerks, Mickey Mouse became an international sensation, and remains one of the most recognizable images of all time. Though Disney was born 110 years ago yesterday, this story is one that we find appearing again and again through the lives of artists everywhere. During the periods when employment and economics seem to be the darkest, artists have found ways to dig deep within themselves to find the creativity and strength to pursue their passions.
It’s never easy. Disney himself was clear-eyed about the reasons he created Mickey Mouse. “Mickey Mouse is, to me, a symbol of independence. He was a means to an end.”
For artists today, it’s difficult to balance artistic integrity with the stuff that pays the bills. Another night at a half-empty bar playing “Freebird,” performing in commercials when you were trained for Shakespeare, designing flyers for non-profit organizations…they are a means to an end. But even Disney took pride in his means; on the back of a cartoon mouse, he built an empire. There is no telling when “the big break” will strike, be it in an empty bar or in a sold-out house.
Later in life, Disney said, “People still think of me as a cartoonist, but the only thing I lift a pen or pencil for these days is to sign a contract, a check, or an autograph.” May the artists of today have that option, but choose to hoist those pencils in creativity for many years to come.
Have a favorite Disney movie of your own? What artists inspire you to keep going when times are tough? We want to hear from you in the comments!