Grandson pays tribute to creative grandfather, a former Disney animator who loved life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 14, 2013 

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    Email David Lauderdale at dlauderdale@islandpacket.com.

Thanks to Whit Hansen of Charlotte for sharing the story of his creative grandfather, Ross Wetzel of Sun City Hilton Head.

Ross, who died April 16 at age 96, used his artistic skills in retirement to raise money for Hospice Care of the Lowcountry.

"This Is the Life"

By Whit Hansen

Ross Wetzel was a remarkable and pioneering artist. His work as an animator for the Walt Disney Co. during its "Golden Era," his successes in using animation in the advertising world, and his masterful work in watercolor and serigraphy mark him indelibly among the ranks of important American artists.

Ross was born March 11, 1917, in Chicago. By the age of 6 he demonstrated a talent and passion for art. He was an avid art student through high school, and enrolled with his future wife and artist, Janice, at the American Academy of Art in Chicago.

In 1938, after the success of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Disney needed more animators to work on its next project, "Pinocchio." It put out advertisements in newspapers across the country to search for talent. Ross sent in his tryout brochure and was one of the few applicants to have a full tryout for Disney in Los Angeles. He was subsequently hired and enrolled in Disney's rigorous animators' training program.

His first assignment was in Disney's comic strip department, working on the Mickey Mouse comic strip. He was then moved into the animation department as first assistant to animator Ollie Johnston, one of Disney's famous "Nine Old Men." He worked as Ollie's cleanup man on "Pinocchio." He went on to work on "Fantasia," helping pen the flying horses; and on "Bambi," under Eric Larson, another of the "Nine Old Men."

Ross left Disney in 1941 for a job offer from King Features Syndicate to work on the "Felix the Cat" comic strip. He married Janice May Johnson on March 11, 1941, and they moved back to Chicago.

He was chosen to be the artist to create Northern Tissue's advertising campaign. However, that same year, he was drafted into the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which was the first military unit in history to be made entirely of film professionals. He worked with such movie stars as Clark Gable and Alan Ladd, and his commanding officer was a young Ronald Reagan. He worked on storyboards and backgrounds for the Air Corps' training films for fighter pilots and bombers. These animated films were critical for pilot training as the technology for creating live action film versions of the training films wasn't possible at the time.

He was discharged in 1946, and returned to his work with Northern Tissue, eventually creating its first television commercial, which featured "Fluffy the Northern Cub."

Ross recognized the need for animation in television advertisement, and created a commercial art studio called "The Cartoonists" in 1947. They created animated commercials and print advertisements for companies such as Kellogg's, Kleenex and Continental Airlines, featuring such characters as Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. Ross was also hired to produce one of the first renderings of Smokey the Bear for the U.S. Forest Service.

Ross and Janice started a serigraphy business, which came to be known as Ross Wetzel Studios. During this time he was able to develop his talents in other mediums, most notably creating watercolors in which he chose to "eliminate perspective." His paintings earned high regard in the art community and were featured in such periodicals as "American Artist." He was an active member in the art community of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.

He wanted to share his passion for art with the world, so he created many instructional books on how to draw. He was an avid golfer and scored four holes in one.

After his retirement, Ross and Janice moved to Sun City Hilton Head in September 2000. They continued to paint, and Ross began teaching art in the community center.

After Janice's death in 2004, Ross discovered a new outlet for his artistic passion. Janice had been cared for by Hospice Care of the Lowcountry. Ross was so impressed with the service that he committed himself to raising money for them.

He started a program, with assistance from Julia Sanchez, Jane Clark and his other friends from the Sun City art room, which created gift boxes containing greeting cards with Ross' paintings and serigraphs. The profits from this program have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Hospice Care of the Lowcountry.

Ross had a passion for life that was infectious, and his love of drawing was all-encompassing. At any given moment, he would magically produce a pen and piece of scrap paper and make his illustrations come to life for a friend, a grandchild or a curious passerby.

In his final days, when his strength was all but sapped, he would still call out for a pen and paper, or a hospice gift box, and slowly kept making art.

He was known for saying to his friends and family, "This is the life, hey gang?"

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