From Rat Fink to Mickey Mouse, Santa Ynez artist drew a successful career

Santa Ynez native Art Alvarez ended up working as a lead artist for Disney. There he created characters that include Pocahontas.

By Raiza Giorgi

Art Alvarez remembers Marjorie Hasley, his teacher at Santa Ynez Elementary School, scolding him after school as his parents sat and listened. She was unhappy because he was drawing on everything instead of doing his schoolwork.

“I remember listening to her as she was lecturing me about not focusing on my studies and catching me drawing on my papers, but then she pulled out this picture (that she had done) that was so well drawn I thought it was a photograph,” Alvarez said.

Mrs. Hasley then told him he had a real talent in art and there was a right time and place for it — but not while she was teaching other subjects, he recalled with a laugh.

Recently, he was thrilled when his former teacher sent him that drawing that she had shown him so long ago. He proudly displays it at his home in Los Angeles.

Alvarez seems to have found the right times and places for his art. He has had a successful art career, showcasing his skills at venues that range from shopping malls to car shows to working as a lead artist for Disney. He is now working on two books, one solely on his art and the other in more of a memoir style.

Alvarez grew up in a ranching family, working on a cattle ranch in Santa Ynez. He helped lay irrigation pipes and work and feed cattle, but he knew that art was his calling. He loved to spend his time drawing hot rods and monster trucks.

After graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in 1976 he moved to Modesto and became a manager at a Foot Locker in the mall in Turlock.

“It was a great job, and on my days off I would wander around the car shows and swap meets, which is where I saw airbrushing for the first time and I was enthralled,” Alvarez said.

When Aaron Brothers art supply store opened, Alvarez went in and asked about airbrushing and how he could learn. After bringing a few samples back to show the art store clerk, he started setting up a booth at the swap meet and airbrushing classic cars on T-shirts.

“I sold more in one day than I made in a week at Foot Locker,” Alvarez recalled.

As a first-generation American in his family, Alvarez said that when he moved home to study art his parents weren’t so sure about it. He spent his weekends at the swap meets in Nipomo and San Luis Obispo, selling his T-shirts, and after a few months he was making more money than he could by holding a steady job — and he was contributing income to his family.

Santa Ynez native Art Alvarez worked as an airbrush artist in the Puente Hills Mall in the mid-1980s.

“The airbrushing scene was exploding in the early 1980s, and my cousin invited me to Los Angeles to showcase my skills. I caught the attention of Big Daddy Ed Roth, who created the Rat Fink character, and he became my mentor for several years,” Alvarez said.

Rat Fink was the anti-Mickey Mouse, which is ironic since Alvarez would one day go to work for the creator of Mickey Mouse.

Rat Fink is usually either green or gray, comically grotesque and depraved-looking with bulging, bloodshot eyes, an oversized mouth with sharp, narrow teeth, and wearing red overalls with the initials “R.F.” on them. He is often shown driving cars or motorcycles.

After a few years Alvarez decided to strike out on his own and ended up being asked to design a few airbrushes for Badger Air-Brush Company. Then he traveled the country lecturing and giving “how-to” demonstrations.

In his personal life, 1985 was very important because his son was born. In 1991 his wife was pregnant with their daughter and Alvarez said his world was rocked when she asked for a divorce.

Art Alvarez got his start at Disney by painting character heads and attraction backdrops before he became a lead artist.

“When I was working in an art show in Anaheim a few years later, I was again in the right place and time as Disney executives were looking for new artists and they contacted me to apply,” Alvarez said.

He started by painting backdrops and pictorial signs at Disneyland.

“You know how the song ‘It’s a Small World’ gets stuck in your head for awhile after going on the ride? Well it’s engrained into my deepest depths as I spent so much time in that attraction, painting and repainting. I had to have the staff shut off the music when I worked, but it didn’t stop playing in my head,” he laughed.

Even on his lunch break from painting, Alvarez loved drawing and doing his own work. When an executive from Disney’s Imagineering division saw him doing that, Alvarez was invited to learn illustration. He ended up interviewing for an artist position on the upcoming film at the time, “Pocahontas.”

“I had to show off my portfolio before this room full of suits and Disney artists. I was tested to make illustrations in three days, and over the course of two weeks I did 10 illustrations,” Alvarez said.

On the last day of his interview he was stuck in traffic and ended up being 20 minutes late. When he finally found the room, he felt as if his own life was a movie.

“It was that quintessential dark room that was full of people in suits looking at my illustrations. I looked at my boss and she just gave me this nod … I knew I had gotten the job, and I still get emotional telling this story,” he said.

In 2006, Art Alvarez created this Illustration that went to New York City for the opening of the Disney Store in Times Square.

Alvarez never went to school for art, but ended up being a major artist for Disney who did main characters and posters while working there for 22 years.

He has now returned to doing illustrations for the automotive industry, as his first passion has always been hot rods and classic cars.

“I think back to all my experiences and feel very lucky to have been at the right place and time, especially in that classroom with Mrs. Hasley where she was lecturing me, because she helped me figure out I wanted to be an artist,” he said.

Alvarez founded Big ’n’ Rigged Apparel, which does custom products for car shows, events and businesses, and he still does some work for Disney from time to time. You can follow his work on Facebook.