Bob Winquist taught design to a generation of Cal Arts animation students from 1983-1991. His students, who have gone on to spread his creative influence into all corners of the industry, universally loved him. On January 31, four months after his death, Cal Arts held a memorial for Bob, drawing former students from all over the country. These former students who attended the event offered their thoughts to FLIP.
Bob was a sage, a friend, an icon, a great teacher and truly something of a mythic figure, though he'd probably pooh-pooh that title if he heard it and secretly love it. He loved artfully.
He was, of course, unique - a very dynamic and charming personality, always "up" and an absolutely riveting storyteller. His knowledge of design was profoundly serious. He himself went to one of the most rigorous art schools in the country, but he took pains that we not be overwhelmed or intimated in his class. He wanted us to be inspired and feel free to express ourselves as individuals. His method of planting ideas and letting us figure things out on our own was gently subversive. He often stated that it was he who was being educated and inspired by us, the total neophytes - and it was plain that he meant what he said.
Bob instilled in us the belief that we could do anything we aspired to - that through continuously honing our own best skills and believing in our creativity we could overcome anything, and that true happiness is doing what you believe in, what you alone can do best. That sounds like a lot of platitudes, but as students in a very specific, career-oriented program where the words "Disney" and "Character Animation" loom large, Bob insisted that we think of ourselves as artists and filmmakers rather than future employees, that we not shortchange ourselves.
He didn't encourage arrogance by any means. He just didn't want Cal Arts to produce cookie-cutter animation artists thinking of their careers in narrow terms when the school had the potential to offer much more.
There are some people that teach skills and there are some who teach skills and life lessons as well. I suppose the reason that so many people came back for Bob's memorial was that Bob was the latter. Though he was a private and somewhat mysterious person, he was a man who was open and ready to give his students what he thought they needed both technically as well as philosophically.
I recall a story he told during one class in which a couple of men walking along a road discovered a coconut lying on the ground. When they cracked it open a tiny man tumbled out, dead.
One of the men says to the other, "How very sad to spend your entire life in a coconut."
The other one replied, "Oh yeah? I had a cousin who lived his whole life in a walnut."
To be honest, I didn't know what that meant-- but to some people, it was incredibly profound. And even though I didn't get the meaning, the story stays with me all this time later. Personally, I didn't go back solely for Bob, I went to his memorial for the possibility of seeing faces I hadn't seen in a long time.
Very rare footage of Bob Winquist at Chouinard Institute, 1950's. Clip from Jenny Lerew.
He had great faith in your work and your talent. His stories about old Hollywood were legendary. He had a way of making himself larger than life through his tall tales, many of which are still being debated and discussed to this day. Did he REALLY have 100 homes? Did he REALLY come of age behind Aunt Pitty Patt's Gone With the Wind house set on the MGM backlot? Did he REALLY come up with the classic Howard Johnson's orange and turquoise color scheme? Ah, but does it really matter?
Bob taught me just to trust the artistic voice within, even while working in a corporate driven environment; don't hide your point of view. Let your work be personal. And his belief in your talent often helped push students to do the impossible, and often to do it better than they thought they could. While many said 'no' in the hopes of saving students from certain catastrophe, Bob said 'yes'. And it always paid off one way or the other.
Bob Winquist certainly believed in every imaginable facet of animation being viable and his predictions have come to pass. When he started at Cal Arts Disney was pretty much the only game in town. Now there are plenty of other players in the arena. This year alone we'll see stop motion, CGI and hand drawn animated projects all come from major players in the industry, many that dare to be more artist driven than corporate driven. Bob would be thrilled. In a way, I think he had something to do with that, pushing talented students to consider how much more to life there is than just Disney.
What was amazing was the combined effect of person after person telling their stories about Bob, how he'd had an impact on them that they'd carried through their lives professionally and personally. It was clear that different as we all are we all felt the same way about him, and it was extremely moving.
The alumni turn out ran the gamut of Bob's Cal Arts years, 1984-92. There were people I see every day, and many more that I hadn't seen since leaving school in 1990. It was exhilarating, exhausting and just a tad unreal. I hadn't walked back into the department since 1992 and after a few moments it felt like no time had passed at all. Helping the time warp effect was the fact that Martha Baxton was not only still there--she hadn't changed at all. Most of the rest of us are both 20 years older and look it, even if we don't feel it.
It was interesting to see former classmates, once children, with spouses and children of their own. I was happy to in particular to reunite with Ann Telnaes who I'd not seen since she graduated. she moved to Washington D.C. and became a political cartoonist,. It was nice now not to be upperclassman and underclassman, but peers. We stood side by side and warmly traded comments during the open mic section of Bob's memorial, as grown women with settled (or in my case, changing) careers, not as squirrelly college kids viewing each other as potential competition for what jobs my lie ahead.
Afterwards, many of us pushed down beer and pizza at a local Pizza joint fondly remembered by students past, Vincenzo's. We're all holding up pretty well, despite the years. It reminds you how these people truly are part of an extended family. For me, these people ARE family. And even the most edgy and bombastic alumni have mellowed considerably, myself included. We were all obnoxious kids who felt we had just received the keys to the Magic Kingdom. We were animation geeks who had just discovered our tribe. We were going to jump around like caffeinated orangutans just because we were happy. Those truly were the best years of my life.
We'd wondered in advance what the turnout would be, and it exceeded everyone's guesses. It was so crammed with attendees that there were some I saw across the room that I wasn't able to get to. Really, it was the only chance most of us had ever had to reconnoiter and kibitz and share stories. Bob would have had an absolute ball and pronounced it wonderful , no question.
Read more about Bob in Jenny's blog.