If you've seen a Disney animated movie in the last 25 years, you're already familiar with James Coleman's work.
Coleman began his career at Disney in 1969 in the mailroom, delivering letters to the artists and creative types that pervaded the company's studios. He chatted with them about their work and sometimes watched them paint. Occasionally, he would look at the archives and study how past films had been drawn. It wasn't long before he surprised everyone by winning an in-house painting contest.
Coleman sold that painting -- a landscape of an old mill -- to Walt Disney's brother Roy for $30.
"It was surreal," said Coleman, who had always had an interest in painting but joined the Disney team with no intention of becoming an artist.
"After that show, I made the decision that I would give it everything I had," the Hollywood native said.
"Everything" turned out to be 22 years as a background director, working on 25 feature films, beginning with "The Rescuers" and ending with "The Black Cauldron." By then, Coleman had spent years moonlighting as a fine arts painter and decided to switch to that full time.
Coleman's personal paintings, which include many landscapes from his visits to Hilton Head Island and around the Lowcountry, will be on display at Endangered Arts Limited on Hilton Head Island from Oct. 11-12. He will be joined by black and white seascape artist Phillip Anthony, Lowcountry realist Rodel Gonzalez, wavy art creator Steve Barton and still-life artist Rino Gonzalez.
All five artists will discuss their work, unveil new pieces and paint live.
"The gallery has been around for 19 years, and James Coleman was one of our original artists," said Julie Rogers, owner of Endangered Arts and longtime friend of Coleman. "That's why he's so important to us, because he's been with us the whole time we've been growing."
Coleman's art is impressionistic, as if Monet had chosen to paint the underwater world of Ariel or the Hundred Acre Wood instead of lily ponds. In his personal work, Coleman still captures the magic of his Disney films, to such a degree that you want to crawl inside and live in his sanguine marshes and sun-dappled waterfalls.
"My work has this natural romance to it. It's hard to say whether part of that came from Disney or whether part of that came from me and went into the Disney films," Coleman said. "I kind of fall in love with the places that I'm painting. I think I was doing that in those films too."
That was easy to do while creating the idyllic forest for "The Fox and the Hound," Coleman's "first favorite" film, or the sinister yet beautiful terrain in "The Black Cauldron," his "artistic favorite."
Of course, working literally and figuratively in the background was frustrating at times, Coleman said. "In some ways it was good because we could fly under the radar and do our thing, but all the credit for a film would go to the animators," he said. "There weren't many background artists who became known for what they did. I kind of changed that, but that was only because of my persistence in fine art."
Coleman's move from the background to the forefront in his own pieces outside Disney was a refreshing one, allowing him to paint what he pleased, traveling often to capture landscapes in Europe, Hawaii and the Lowcountry.
"The first time I ever got to Hilton Head, I just fell in love with it. The woods, the water, all those things just fill me up," Coleman said. "It's easy to let that go in a painting. It rolls out of the brush."