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Author Mindy Johnson talks ‘herstory’-making role of women in Walt Disney Animation

From painting colors and characters onto transparent cels to being a model for Tinker Bell, women had pivotal roles in bringing Disney animated films to life.
Courtesy of Mindy Johnson/Disney Archives
Disney artist Hazel Sewells in the Ink and Paint Department circa 1934.
Courtesy of Mindy Johnson/Disney Archives Disney artist Hazel Sewells in the Ink and Paint Department circa 1934.
Published Jan. 24, 2018
Updated Jan. 25, 2018

When author and historian Mindy Johnson first visited the Walt Disney animation archives to research the women of the Ink and Paint department, she was handed a folder with just five pieces of paper inside.

About five years later, she published a hefty, almost 400-page illustrated tome on the women who helped make Disney's animated films globally renowned. A first of its kind, Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation chronicles the careers of these artists, whose job it was to add colors and characters after animators were done sketching. The book follows the department, primarily made up of women, from the time of physically painting onto transparent celluloid to the beginnings of digital production.

"I had been led to believe, like anyone else, that it was simply pretty girls who traced and colored," Johnson said. "As I got into it, I learned about the landmark work accomplished by these women."

Johnson recently visited Epcot for the park's annual International Festival of the Arts. At panels during the festival's opening weekend, Johnson talked about writing Ink & Paint and previous project Tinker Bell: An Evolution along with the "her-story" of women in animation.

"These women were artists in their own right; they were animating and moving color and we don't talk about that," she said. "We focus on men wielding pencils, but there were women wielding pencils as well."

Johnson's love for film began with her training in classical music. She said her time as a harpist led to a passion for photography and film, which then led to film school at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. She eventually found herself working at Disney on the corporate end and then in the entertainment division doing global publicity for the classic animated films.

Her time at Disney helped spark a passion for animation history, particularly the role women had and still have in bringing these culture-defining films to life.

Courtesy of Mindy Johnson

"I love shedding light on those who normally wouldn't get the credit they deserve," she said. "Working with Disney legends, sharing these stories with new generations, finding a new way to tell them, finding the artists and voices behind the scenes — it's magical; timeless."

Ink & Paint brings together more than 130 interviews from the women of Disney's early Ink and Paint department and their families. Johnson spent countless hours digging through the Disney archives searching for every scrap of information on all the women who worked in Disney Animation Studios since its founding 95 years ago.

Through writing her book, Johnson met with influential women like Wilma Baker, who painted on Snow White. It was her first job, Johnson said, and Baker said at the time she didn't realize how extraordinary her job was.

Johnson also chronicled the story of Ink and Paint girl Ginni Mack, who died last year at 90, in Ink & Paint and in Tinker Bell: An Evolution. Mack was a groundbreaking artist at Disney Animation and is immortalized as the original model for the green dress-wearing pixie.

"I wanted these women to tell their stories in as many first-hand accounts as possible," Johnson said.

Ink & Paint consumed her life for five years, Johnson said, but now she's quietly looking at potential offshoots of the book. She's researching more women at Disney and other pioneering women in animation outside of the House of Mouse.

She said some of the greatest reactions she gets from the book came from the seminar at the International Festival of the Arts — one from a couple of older women and one from a 12-year-old aspiring artist.

"These ladies in their 60s pulled me aside later with tears in their eyes," she said. "They said 'we had no idea women had such a major contribution.'"

The 12-year-old girl said she had asked for Ink & Paint for Christmas and showed Johnson some of her work that she animates on her computer.

"I said 'alright this is for you.'" Johnson said. " I told her she has incredible shoulders to stand on; the way has been paved for you."

"Focus on your art work and get out there with it."

Epcot's International Festival of the Arts

A celebration of visual, culinary and performance arts. Check out exclusive exhibits with work from legendary Disney artists, taste creative dishes that are almost too pretty to eat and experience Disney on Broadway with performances by stars from The Lion King, Tarzan and more.

The festival also includes work and performances from local artists in Orlando and around Central Florida.

Through Feb. 19. Included with park admission. Seminars, workshops, concerts, food and drink are separate.

More information at disneyworld.com.

Destination Foodie: Theme parks expand food festivals to feed all tastes

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

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