Storyboard: Phil Hettema

How to Graduate from Disneyland to Art School

I'm a native Southern Californian, born in Pasadena, who was born right around the time that Walt Disney introduced his pet project, something called a "theme park", to the world (... yes, it was a long time ago!). I was a shy kid with a big imagination and for me anything was possible once I passed through that train station portal and stepped onto Main Street USA. On my family's annual visit to Disneyland, I was captivated by the diverse worlds of fantasy and adventure I experienced and full of questions about how everything worked.

What I didn't understand at the time was the profound influence those visits would have on my career. The experiences and environments, that combined storytelling with architecture and outside of the box technical sophistication were almost overwhelming and remained with me long after each visit. My inquisitive mind was always trying to figure out, "How did they do that?” even after the stunning realization that there were actually designers and writers and engineers that created those experiences, the wish that I might someday be part of that world just seemed completely outside of the realm of possibility.

Well, as it turns out, I'm living validation of that old saying, "Be careful what you wish for."

Two events changed the trajectory of my life completely. First, a summer job at Disneyland (an unglamorous position hustling laundry in the wardrobe department) led to some serendipitous opportunities. Encouraged by some incredible mentors and a supportive boss who noticed my curiosity and interest, I got a chance to observe and even collaborate with some major project teams. I realized I might actually be able to have a career helping to create memorable and immersive experiences. But with that came an awareness that I needed to develop much stronger skills and capabilities.

That led to the second major event.... I decided to quit my job and enroll at ArtCenter. A decision which really impacted my life and equipped me to pursue a long and successful career...doing the very things I dreamed about as a kid.

One of the first things I learned was that common bond that unites all ArtCenter students, regardless of discipline: everyone treats being there as a privilege, not a right. It was an exciting place to be and also a massively challenging one. They say, “no risk, no reward,” but ArtCenter practically redefines this maxim. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the man I am today without my time spent there.

One of the things ArtCenter allowed me to bring to The Hettema Group is this idea that design can tell a story just like a film, a painting or a piece of music. The stories we tell at The Hettema Group are ongoing: works in progress that reflect our changing world. One of the beautiful things about being a creative is that you never get to the point where you can say, “Okay, I’m done now.” The entire span of a creative life is a work in progress. As artists, it is our responsibility to never stop asking questions. That is why I love what I do: because the process never stops.

We have a joke at The Hettema Group: “We never do the same thing once.” In other words, we have to break it down to its bare bones, understand the innate essence of it and, finally, get to the story that lies at the heart of every piece of art. Design can tell a story. My time at ArtCenter compelled me to look at the greater story, the story of our greater world. After all these years, do I know how the story ends? Not really. And maybe that’s okay. Because I know that the story is ongoing, and that new generations of ArtCenter graduates will be the ones who are shaping it. This is why I feel it’s vital to support students on their journey – together, we are creating a story. I hope you will consider supporting them as well. In the meantime, let’s keep the questions coming. Relentlessly.

Phil Hettema
BFA 81 Illustration
The Hettema Group

One of the beautiful things about being a creative is that you never get to the point where you can say, ‘okay, I'm done now.’ The entire span of a creative life is a work in progress.

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