By Julia Bluff
Like a modern day Renaissance man, Paso Robles resident Frank Armitage has distinguished himself as a muralist, medical illustrator, conceptual artist, painter, philanthropist and an expert in traditional forms of Eastern medicines.
And he isn’t stopping there.
A founding artist at Paso Robles Studios on the Park, Armitage continues to produce pieces of art and add to his collection of accolades and awards. Recently, the native Australian, who now resides with his wife, Karen, on a Geneseo ranch, was honored as a Disney Legend by the National Fantasy Fan Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the legacy of Walt Disney. The award, incepted in 1993, is given only to those “whose careers have contributed to the magic and the wonder of Walt Disney’s dream.”
Armitage received the award on July 18 along with five other fellow honorees – Jodi Benson, the voice of the Little Mermaid; Tony Anselmo, who voiced Donald Duck after its progenitor Clarence “Ducky” Nash; Bill Farmer, who gave voice to Disney’s Goofy and Pluto; Bruce Gordon and David Mumford, who co-wrote several books on Disney history’ and Paige O’Hara, who is both the singing and speaking voice of Belle.
Armitage was singled out for his decades-long career with Disney, during which time he worked on Disney films considered now an iconic staple of childhood. He also collaborated on theme park design and has spent time as a concept illustrator for Disney’s elite team of Imagineers.
A man who admittedly dislikes being serious, Armitage quickly turned to jokes when asked about his reaction to the NFFC Disney Legend Award.
“I guess if you wait long enough, something happens, he said with a smile, surrounded by head studies, portraits, landscapes and paintings in the downtown Paso Robles open artists studio. “I guess they ran out of people’ I guess it’s my turn.”
A SNAPSHOT OF THE PAINTER
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Armitage was almost an only child – there are 16 years of separation between him and his sister. Without a younger sibling to pick on and play with, Armitage turned to drawing in an effort to keep boredom at bay.
“When I was growing up, I was always amusing myself by drawing,” he said. “There was no TV or anything like that.”
After a stint in the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II, Armitage returned home to Melbourne to attend art school. Impatient with the pace and eager to work, Armitage wandered across a book on the shelves of the National Gallery of Victoria on Mexican mural painters, liked what he saw and resolved to go to Mexico – though easier said than done. He quit school to earn passage for the journey, sailed to Canada and spent another 18 months working and saving enough money to get to Central America. Finally, he scraped together enough for a bus passage.
“I think the most boring thing I have ever done in my life was ride a bus from Montreal, Canada to Mexico City,” he said of the more than weeklong trek. “People would get on the bus and off the bus and I’d still be sitting there – but that was the cheapest way to go.”
As it always has for the artist, success came quickly, matched in measure only by the degree of his talent. Armitage won an international mural contest sponsored by renowned Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros in 1949. As Siguieros’ assistant, he worked on several murals in public buildings in Mexico.
By 1952, he had shifted from the grand-scale beauty of murals to the intricacy of film animation. He came on board with Walt Disney Company at the tail end of the production of “Peter Pan.” Armitage worked in animation on “Lady and the Tramp” before transitioning to background painting for a number of Disney’s most well loved feature films, such as “Mary Poppins,” The Jungle Book” and “Sleeping Beauty.” These movies are now a mainstay on movie shelves and have engrained themselves into the fabric of a collective childhood experience. At the time, Armitage said he had no idea that the films would go on to achieve worldwide recognition.
“It was a job,” he said. “The most challenging part about it was every film is keyed by a different artist for the look and the people that worked on the film had to learn to paint like him. We had 10 painters on ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and they all had to paint like [Disney background artist] Eyvind Earle. You take something like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Jungle Book’ – boy, that is night and day in style.”
This ability to shift easily into dramatically different style likely came in handy when Armitage’s interest in human anatomy led him to the field of medical illustration. In stark contrast with one another, Armitage’s weekdays were spent on Disney films and his weekends sitting in on dissection classes held at UCLA.
“I didn’t want to do the traditional medical illustration,” he said. “I could never handle that. Everything is lit from the upper left and so rigid. So, I broke all the rules.”
Year of working in a film studio, where Armitage was free to wander around the sets of “Zorro,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” prompted the artist to render the images more intimately than scientifically.
“That, I believe it is what influence my images, because what I did with anatomy was to create paintings that had an intimate look to them, where you feel that you are inside and surrounded by the anatomical portion,” he said.
Armtiage’s re-envisioned medical illustration’s found acclaim and in 1971, he partnered with photographer Lennart Nilsson to illustrate the functions of the brain in Life Magazine.
In honor of his contributions to the biomedical visualization field, Armitage now has a yearly lecture series named after him, which highlights cutting edge “visual geniuses” in medical and scientific illustration, animation and imaging. Moreover, Armitage’s work in this field also led to an opportunity to paint a portrait of the Dalai Lama, on the day the exiled leader was named the 1989 winner of the Noble Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama was meeting with six neuro-anatomists on the subject of life after death and Armitage was commissioned to mark the occasion with a painting.
Armitage’s knowledge of human anatomy, coupled with his artistic creativity and a tendency toward out-of-the-box visualization, undoubtedly was essential when he was loaned by Disney to 20th Century Fox to do production illustration on the 1966 science fiction movie, “Fantastic Voyage.” The film, starring Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd, centers on a medical crew that is miniaturized and injected into the body of a man left comatose after an assassination attempt. The scientists and surgeons must navigate through the body, destroy a blood clot and save the prone man’s life.
It was Armitage’s job to paint scenes of the inner body, which the film’s art director would then build into sets. The translation of his paintings into a larger-than-life set was a thrill for the artist. Armitage recalls early mornings on the newly constructed sets, which shortly before existed only in the realms of concept and imagination.
“The sun would be coming up and just to stand in the middle of all this stuff – it just came alive, to me,” he said.
In 1977, Armitage was invited to join Disney’s Imagineers, working in theme park design and as a concept illustrator. He became part of the team that worked on the Epcot’s Wonders of Life Pavilion, which included a ride through the body. The move from background illustration to concept illustrator afforded the artist a higher degree of creative freedom. He officially retried from Disney in 1989, but continued to do work for them for several more years painting murals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Tokyo Disney Sea, portraits of Theodore Roosevelt for the Roosevelt Lounge in the American Waterfront and much more.
To round out his achievements, Armtiage is also well schooled in the arts of traditional eastern medicines and holds a degree from the College of Oriental Medicine.
Currently, he splits his time between his Geneseo ranch and the Paso Robles Studios on the Park, an open artist studio that affords the public an opportunity to watch an artist at work, see and buy their latest productions and question the artist as to their process and inspiration.
For his latest round of paintings, his interest has turned back Down Under. Head studies of Aboriginals now crowd the walls of his studio and a large painting inspired by a “Waltzing Matilda,” an Australian country folk ballad that is also known as the country’s unofficial national anthem, dominates the space. The artist and his work can be seen at Paso Robles Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St. Armitage said that he doesn’t mind interruptions.
“I joke a lot,” he warned with a sly smile. “Because it’s an easy way out of being serious, which I don’t want to be.”
For more information on Paso Robles Studios on the Park, visit its Web site at www.studiosonthepark.org or call 238-9800.