Camille Rose Garcia on Getting Dark with Disney

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Camille Rose Garcia
A mad tea party

Growing up in Southern California not far from Disneyland, the celebrated "lowbrow" artist Camille Rose Garcia fell in love with all things Disney at an early age. Disney animation in particular has remained a key influence upon her work. In looking at her distinctive work, it becomes obvious that Garcia's vision of the world is darker and more complex than that influence alone.

Rife with dystopian ideas and phantasmagorical imagery, Garcia's paintings hold a central place in the pop surrealist movement of the last two decades. Still, there's a sense of her having come full circle as an exhibition opens this week at the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio that pairs her interpretations of the Alice in Wonderland story with Mary Blair's imaginative, angular designs for Disney's Alice film of 1951. Garcia, who cites Blair specifically as an influence, spoke to us about the exhibition and her other recent work.

How did the exhibition come together?
I did the Alice in Wonderland book a couple of years ago, and I made the decision to keep all the artwork together. I was looking at the early Tenniel work -- the original Alice in Wonderland illustrations -- and I was thinking, "How great to have a whole body like that kept together." So I framed it all and showed it in Los Angeles. Then the Walt Disney Family Museum contacted me about doing a show, and I mentioned that I had this whole body of work in my personal collection. They loved it because it tied in with the Disney Alice in Wonderland -- and they do a spring, Alice in Wonderland-themed tea party every year.

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The artist with some of her work

When you were a kid, did you first encounter the Alice in Wonderland story through the Disney movie, or through the book?
It was probably both. I had the book from an early age. But I loved the Disney version in terms of the way it added this whole world of color to the original story, which was done with black-and-white illustrations. And it's also that older era of the animation -- [it's] so beautiful in that they're hand-painted and so textural. And going to Disneyland a lot as a kid, I remember the [Alice] ride, where you'd ride around in this caterpillar, and you'd go out over these leaves and butterflies, and as a kid, that was magic: "We're flying!"

Is that near the front of the park? Isn't there also a Peter Pan ride there, where you're in a ship?
Yeah, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Those are the storybook rides. There's a Snow White one, too, and it's really cool. They're for kids, but I still like to go on them. I really like that idea that you're traveling through a book -- and that's what they're like.

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An original Mary Blair concept painting for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland"

In the exhibition, your work will be side-by-side with paintings from the Disney film by Mary Blair. How much did you know about her and how much of an influence was she, specifically?
I've been obsessed with her for a while. I'm very familiar with her work. When I was doing all the Alice in Wonderland research, [I found] that she had done all of the background design for the Disney film. She also designed "It's a Small World," and she designed this really cool tile mural that used to be in Tomorrowland. At that time, there weren't many female artists working in animation. Walt Disney loved her work because it was so different from what everyone else was doing. Her work really sticks out compared to what other artists at the studio were doing; it's very distinctive. I always look at her work for color, specifically. It's a real honor to be shown side-by-side with her.

She's such a big part of the '50s Disney look.
Yeah. It's a little bit -- not naïve, that's not the right word. But it's so representative of that '50s look -- that dry brushwork and wash work that she was so famous for.

A lot of your work has some pretty dark undercurrents. Did the Disney people ever express any wariness or concern about the darker aspects of your stuff?
Well, this [exhibition] is working specifically with the Walt Disney family, and they're not really tied to the corporation at all. And they've been so great to work with, because Walt Disney's grandson, Walter Disney Miller, is such a fan of art and especially all the LA lowbrow work that reinterprets pop culture. They loved the darker elements in my work -- and a lot of the early Disney stuff had some darker qualities to it.

This museum has a much more "indie" spirit -- like the early days of Walt and Roy Disney with their little animation studio. That's who they were: indie artists and animators. We always think of Disney as this giant corporation, but the early stuff is fascinating -- and that's what's great about the museum is that it [explores] all that early stuff.

As well as Walt Disney's two or three big early failures before anything took off.
Yeah, you never really think about those things. Obviously, you only think about everyone's success once they become a household name. Every new kind of venture he would try, people told him he was crazy. And Disneyland -- they put it together in a year. It's astounding. And everyone said, "That's crazy. It's never going to make any money." And even after they did Snow White, it was so costly to make, I think they were in the hole after they made it.

I think he risked it all on Snow White, and Disneyland was a similar situation.
Yes, and as an artist -- and for younger artists who are starting out -- risk and failure are such a part of the process. That goes for me as well.

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This Alice work was done a few years ago. What have you been working on recently?
I did the Alice book, and then I also did a Snow White book for HarperCollins. Ages ago, I had written and illustrated a children's book for Fantagraphics. But doing Alice and Snow White renewed in me an interest in doing illustrated children's books for early teens. I've always written, and after doing those illustrated books, I thought, "What I need to do is write and illustrate my own book." The thing that was a little frustrating doing Alice and Snow White is that they are stories we already know -- and Snow White has some pretty dark elements, but of course, I thought, "I need to get much darker." [Laughs]

My examples are Kafka and George Orwell and Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs. So the one I'm working on now is sort of surrealist dystopian fiction, and it's for an early teen audience. I think about what I read when I was 12 or 13, and it was existentialist literature and Orwell and Huxley. I was at that level already, so I thought it could have that kind of emotional depth and social criticism - but also have fun, creepy illustrations.

Camille Rose Garcia: Down the Rabbit Hole will be on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum beginning May 9 through November 3. A special aritst talk and book signing is scheduled for Saturday the 11th at 2pm. For more information, visit www.waltdisney.org.

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