By: Gina Harkins
Some claim to have been born with an ability to know at an early age that they would one day be getting paid for sharing their talents. Painters, sculptors, photographers, actors, singers … artists. Roger Disney isn’t one of them.
“I never really considered it a possibility for me to be a full-time artist,” Disney said. “I knew I wanted to do something art-related, but I thought the only way to get a paycheck would be through graphic design.”
So, the Edmond Memorial High School graduate followed his mind – rather than his heart – to pursue a degree in graphic design and illustration at Oklahoma State University, what he believed to be the ticket to a “safe” job.
“After I graduated, I found out that graphic designers are basically a dime a dozen, especially right out of college,” Disney recalled.
He had taken a few oil painting classes while pursuing his undergraduate degree, but still considered it a hobby. Unsure of where his career would lead him, Disney landed a job as a marketing director for The Student Union at Oklahoma State University, but eventually grew bored. This would become a theme in the initial steps to becoming a nationally recognized artist, one whose oil paintings were featured this past summer in the East Gallery of the Oklahoma State Capitol through an exhibit entitled Cityscapes.
“I knew I wanted to leave Stillwater, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go,” Disney said. So where does an artist go when he doesn’t yet know he is destined to become one?
“Well, I got a job offer working for Lyrick Studios in Dallas, drawing Barney the purple dinosaur … illustrating,” Disney said. “I didn’t take it.”
“I wanted to move somewhere, to do the whole ‘adventure’ thing. To get a fresh start.” It was in England that he started gaining inspiration for his paintings through the photographs he took, a practice he still frequently uses to create his works.
Reality jarred him back to Oklahoma for a stint in the corporate world as a web designer, but Disney found it unfulfilling, and frankly, wasn’t creatively stimulated enough to be satisfied in his job or life. His creative juices began flowing again when he stepped in to teach illustration at OSU for a few weeks during a former professor’s medical leave of absence; though he found teaching frustrating, it influenced another life-changing event.
“I ended up moving to Australia,” Disney mused.
While he can now look back on the venture as an excuse to travel to a beautiful location, at the time he justified his decision by attending the Queensland University of Technology’s Master of Fine Arts program. Although the school wasn’t what he expected, shifting more toward the side of relaxation and less to education, Disney doesn’t regret the experience.
“It makes you stop and think when you travel, it’s always eye opening,” he said. “I don’t have any kids yet, but when I do, I’m going to force them to go abroad because it teaches you something every time.”
“I had met her a couple of weeks before I went to Australia, and we talked on the phone every two to three days while I was away,” he recalled. “It was actually kind of nice because we really got to know each other well.”
Luckily for the couple, who currently reside in Tulsa, they didn’t have to spend the remainder of their romance 15,000+ miles apart. Disney eventually found his way back to Oklahoma after completing a portion of his Masters program abroad, surrounded by breathtaking scenery.
It took a full-time job at a software company, a handful of freelance graphic design gigs and a game-changing Houston art show that yielded 15 to 20 percent of his salary for Disney to give up the work he disliked for the art he loved … for good.
“Being able to quit graphic design, that was just a huge relief,” Disney said. Now he could hone his skills, and had the time to figure out what set him apart from other artists.
“When I first started to paint, I worked with oils and a brush, and then I started using a palette knife,” Disney recalled about the technique that has become a staple of his work. “It was so liberating. I had finally found a tool that I really liked.”
By using a palette knife, Disney could take advantage of greater fluidity and texture, and was able to work at the speed he wished without stopping to constantly clean his brushes or hands.
“It’s much quicker and more efficient, more versatile than a big brush,” Disney explained. “Plus, there’s less of a distraction.”
It’s this love of freedom and his desire to break away from tradition that likely drew Disney to oil painting in the first place.
“I love oil paintings because you have several days of drying time, so you can go back and change things,” Disney said. “I’ll go back, look at it with fresh eyes a couple of hours later or even the next night, and work on it again.”
Though the majority of his works are celebrated, Disney admits that sometimes they are created just for him. Not that he minds.
“There are times when I’ll do a painting that I absolutely love, and I’ll have it for two years,” Disney said. “And sometimes I’ll paint one that I really like, and it will sell right away. But it’s hard because you’ll have a painting that you really like, or that’s in a direction that you’re wanting to go and that took a long time to create, and you kind of want to keep it. You get attached to them.”
Disney even recalled a time at one of his first shows as a full-time artist, when he actually tried to talk a potential buyer out of purchasing a painting he particularly liked.
With seven years of experience working the national festival circuit, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for him now. With a schedule that sends him to about 20 shows each year – from Chicago to New York City to Omaha … and back again – Disney works tirelessly to showcase and sell his art, a collection of landscapes, cityscapes and abstract creations largely inspired by the Impressionist and Expressionist movements.
During those rare moments when he’s back home in Oklahoma, he works in his studio at home, or can be found at the Living Arts Center in downtown Tulsa. While he accepts that some in his home state may not be interested in his more abstract designs, he disagrees that it doesn’t have a place here.
“I think there’s a market for art in Oklahoma,” he said, “it’s just a matter of finding a way to reach the people.” It’s a prospect he has focused on in recent years, making a regular appearance at the Oklahoma Arts Festival in Oklahoma City each spring. He’s also trying to recruit several other local artists to open a new studio to help amplify the Oklahoma arts scene.
In addition to oil painting and graphic design, Disney has also stretched his creative chops through custom furniture, photography, illustration and even a newspaper comic. With several years of professional artistry under his belt and a history of thinking outside the box, the only thing certain about this 35-year-old artist’s career is that it’s just getting started.
“I’m kind of a square peg in a round hole,” Disney said. “And it’s worked out really well for me.”