Great walls

Great Walls

While working at Walt Disney Feature Animation in the late 1990’s, I was chosen as a founding member of WDFA’s Digital Visual Development team. This seemingly distinguished appointment was grounded by my humble office: a converted storage closet in the exterior concourse opposite the passenger elevators. From this unusual vantage point, I was treated to daily comings & goings, most notably those of the late great Joe Grant: legendary Disney character designer and story artist who created the Queen in SNOW WHITE, co-wrote DUMBO and led development of PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA. Joe continued to work at Feature Animation a few days each week, and was in his late 80’s when I first met him as he exited the elevator one morning and walked straight into my closet to introduce himself.

Aside from his friendliness to a relative youngster, two things struck me immediately about Joe: his curiosity and his enthusiasm. The former was evident by Joe’s interest in what I was modeling in 3D on the computer. The latter was demonstrated by the charming color drawing which Joe placed in front of me, his eyes beaming. This was one of Joe’s morning sketches, which he did each day before coming in to work. Joe introduced the drawing and then asked me what I thought of it. He remarked that doing one of these each morning made it impossible to have a bad day afterwards: he had already created something over breakfast.

Years later in 2012, as I embarked upon a stint as VP & Head of Creative for The Walt Disney Company’s China Local Content team in Beijing, I recalled Joe Grant’s words. With my corporate responsibilities growing, I began a series of “Daily Doodles” on my iPad, with no purpose other than my own aesthetic enjoyment. These doodles were artistically scattershot for the first year or so, with an eclectic variety of styles and subject matter. A cohesive “body of work” was the last thing on my mind.

As a foreigner, I think it’s important to stay close to everyday life in China, so I’ve always made it a point to walk as much as possible. I love nothing more than to wander through the back streets of Beijing, getting “lost” and taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Along the way, I’ve passed countless “Great Walls”: prematurely-aging, textured city surfaces scrawled with phone numbers and pasted with advertisements, then haphazardly painted over with mismatched swatches of color (usually a variation on grey). One day, I had a “lightbulb moment” and began photographing these walls with my mobile phone, collecting images over which I doodled on my iPad.

I collected what caught my eye, with no preconceived intentions. Fellow pedestrians, seeing me photograph “blank” walls, would often pause to determine what I was shooting. My wife patiently tolerated my sudden stops during walks together, as I photographed yet another instance of nothing in particular. I suffered more than one bodily collision with folks who were staring at their own mobile phones while I was taking pictures through mine. Once I was shooed away by a store owner who assumed that I was an inspector or reporter documenting the condition of his building.

Beijing is an endless source of such background material, and I quickly found myself with an inexhaustable supply of “great walls”, forming a library of images over which I would work – sometimes on something that I had captured that day, and other times on something that had been stashed in my collection. As I doodled over any given wall photo, I tried to let the content of the background speak to me rather than impose my aesthetic preconceptions.

It used to be said that a disadvantage of computer graphics imagery as compared to other art forms (such as painting, printmaking or ceramics) is that there are no “happy accidents” in CGI. However, in my tablet doodling I have found this to be entirely untrue. Due to an ironic combination of increased software sophistication (drafting apps) and reduced input precision (my fat finger), unexpected results occurred so frequently that I began to actively cultivate them: often scribbling my finger carelessly over the tablet and then working into the result (or repeating the “careless” action until I produced an accidental result that was to my liking). Consequently, my Daily Doodles became a ground for intention, accident, serendipity and playfulness. While I try to avoid overt artistic influences, the whimsical quality of Paul Klee’s work appears to have been in the back of my mind (though I would not claim to have approached his proficiency).

In addition to the simple pleasure that I’ve derived from doodling every day, the “Great Walls” have caused me to look at Beijing more closely and affectionately – something I appreciate given the fact that it’s natural to look less closely and less affectionately at a place the longer you dwell in it. In my walks through the eclectic urban landscape of Beijing, I enjoy encountering “old friends”: walls I have photographed and then worked over (or have yet to work over) – some in a similar state as when I first encountered them, and others having “evolved” into something new.

Kevin Geiger

Kevin’s doodles are posted daily to his website:


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