Drawn to create
by Staff Writer
by Mark Zenow
HUNTERSVILLE – In the 1970s Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Disney” was a staple of Sunday night television, leading a generation of children to believe, “if you could dream it, you could do it.”
Now, 40 years later, one local resident who worked briefly for Disney hopes to provide similar inspiration to a new generation, using some of the same tools as Walt Disney did to convey his message: pens, pencils and paper.
“Drawing is not as important to some parents as soccer or things like that, but a lot of kids tell me they enjoy drawing more than their computers,” local cartoonist Ron Gray said on a recent afternoon, as he sat amongst a dozen of his drawings in various stages of development.
From early childhood Gray could see images in his head, much like a musician hears melodies. When he began watching Disney cartoons, it was an epiphany.
“I just loved the animation of Disney,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid my dream was to work for him and to create my own characters.”
Cartooning is the latest in a series of professions for Gray, who is a U.S. Army Green Beret soldier, former skateboard park operator, and semi-retired screen print shop owner.
These days he sets up regularly at the cafe inside Barnes & Noble bookstore at Birkdale Village, often pulling two tables together to create a workspace upon where he creates new characters in his mind and brings them to life on paper.
“He’s casual, which is great,” said Kami Brunelle, who heads up the children’s department at the Birkdale bookstore, where Gray will be teaching a children’s workshop later this month. “He has a great knowledge of the technical side of sketching, but he stresses originality with the kids.”
The 51-year-old artist said that bringing imaginative characters to life through cartoon drawings makes him feel likes he’s 20 years old again. The grin on his face makes you believe it – if the t-shirt he wears with an image of perhaps the most legendary of all cartoon characters, Snoopy, doesn’t.
Gray said he likes being in an environment of learning and imagination, which the bookstore provides, and enjoys being around kids and parents who watch him work.
Occasionally families drinking coffee while looking over his shoulder ask questions and become clients.
“I don’t charge anything for these sessions,” he said, referring to the workshops he leads in the children’s area at Barnes & Noble. “I look to donate my teaching to the kids, because I know times are tough and some parents can’t afford art classes.”
In Gray’s life story, giving to others seems to be a theme.
“I joined the military straight out of high school,” he said. “Followed in my father’s footsteps.”
He chose to serve over following his dream after a chance encounter with one of the most famous cartoonist of all time.
“I turned in an English paper when I was in ninth grade and it had some doodlings on the back,” he explained. “My teacher thought they were good, so she sent my English paper to an art institute in Minneapolis.”
A short time later Gray found himself on the phone with an instructor at the school who would eventually create one of the most famous cartoon strips of all time, Charles Schultz.
“Looking back, it was quite an honor to get a call from someone like him,” Gray said.
Schultz complimented Gray on his drawings, encouraged him to follow his passion, and even offered him a scholarship upon graduation from high school.
But family history and a sense of duty led Gray in another direction, and in the days following graduation he joined the army.
“I came from a patriotic family,” he said. “Always pay back.”
Four years later Gray was part of the Special Forces unit stationed in Germany where his fellow soldiers encouraged him to create a calendar that could be distributed to soldiers throughout the region.
Disney executives saw the calendar after Gray’s commanding officer sent it to them asking for copyright clearance and offered him a job.
“The people at Disney were looking for outside-the-box ideas and they liked what I was doing,” he recalled.
After a meeting with Disney executives in Frankfurt, a relationship was born, and Gray now had another offer to work with a giant in the field of cartooning.
They called it an advisory board, Gray said, and they were working on about 10 new characters. From those sessions, Sport Goofy was created and featured in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Gray is primarily drawn to animal characters like Goofy and Snoopy and those are the types of figures he encourages children to draw.
“I invite kids to bring in photos of their pets and we create cartoon characters from them,” he said. Animal awareness will be the theme of his upcoming workshop at Barnes & Noble later this month.
In addition to his sessions at the bookstore, he is also leading workshops at Discovery Place Kids in Huntersville, with an upcoming session slated for Dec. 3 at 1 pm.
“Bookstores and museums are great places for kids,” Gray said. “I want to show them how much fun they can be.”
Want to go?
Ron Gray will host a drawing class at Barnes & Noble in Birkdale on Nov. 26 at 10:30 a.m. Following a reading of the children’s book “Cherry and Olive,” Gray will help children turn photos of their pets into a cartoon character. All supplies will be provided.