The Art of the Wildly Prolific Mel Shaw Comes to the Walt Disney Family Museum

Don Hahn
, the guest curator for Mel Shaw: An Animator on Horseback at the Walt Disney Family Museum, says he could just have easily have called the exhibition, Storyteller on Horseback or maybe Forrest Gump on Horseback, due to Shaw’s life spanning such a huge breadth and depth.

Born Melvin Schwartzman in 1914, Shaw won a soap-carving contest when he was 12. He moved with his family from Brooklyn to California as a kid, but he hated Los Angeles so much that he ran away at 14 in a failed attempt to become a cowboy. He came back and got a job at a movie title company, then caught Walt Disney’s attention due to his polo playing. At the Disney Studios, Shaw contributed to a number of films, including Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.

Hahn, an Academy Award®-nominated producer whose movies include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Maleficent, knows a little something about animation. Shaw was something special, he says.


“Mel could start out with a blank piece of paper and do anything,” he said. “As you look at his work, you’ll see the love  this person had for life. This feels like Christmas or a movie premiere – I can’t wait for you to see it.”

The exhibition features more than 120 works, including caricature sketches, storyboards, and conceptual artwork from films stretching from Fantasia (1940) to The Lion King (1994). It also includes sculptures, oil paintings, ceramics, and artifacts. Hahn was at the museum for a sneak peek. Joining him was Rick Shaw, Mel’s son.

“Dad’s public face and his private face were very different,” he said. “He was even more prolific in private. What you’re going to see is the real Mel Shaw- art he did for himself.”

Shaw said his family had thousands of paintings of Mel Shaw’s, and they all appreciated Hahn’s efforts to go through them and put together this exhibition.

Another curator for a show that starts in May, John Canemaker, also addressed the audience. Canemaker, a professor at New York Unversity’s Tisch School of the Arts and an animator who’s won Academy and Emmy awards, said it was a joy to work on Wish Upon a Star about Pinocchio. He called the puppet who wants to be a boy the crown jewel in work that included Dumbo and Bambi and Snow White. The New York Times, he said, called it the best thing Disney had ever done- meaning it was the best cartoon ever made.

The exhibition will show radical changes the characters went though, including Pinocchio, who went from a cruel brat to a charming innocent, Canemaker said.

The new co-directors of education for the museum, Alice Carter and Courtney Granner, were also there. The museum is about life learning, they said – from age three to 103, or as Granner put it, from when you can pick up a pencil till when you can’t hold one.

Mel Shaw: An Animator on Horseback, through Sept. 12, at The Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio, $12- $20, 415- 345-6800.

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