Local artist and Disney Imagineer Leslee Turnbull, who once painted backdrops for Pageant of the Masters, brings her career full circle as she’s juried into the beloved Festival of Arts.
By Ashley Ryan
There was no doubt that art would be a part of Leslee Turnbull’s life. After all, she was the class artist as early as kindergarten. But it’s Pageant of the Masters that really kick-started her career, and whisked her away on a thrilling and fulfilling journey.
“It was like going to art school and learning how to paint large, which led to all of these other jobs,” Turnbull notes. “If I hadn’t gotten that experience, I wouldn’t have gone into the theater, which has been this kind of unplanned yet cool path.”
However, it’s only recently that Turnbull has really started to create unique fine art pieces of her own. “Even though I’m doing this later [in life], … the ideas are just hitting me right and left,” she says. Read on for a closer look at her intricate career.
Behind the Scenes
After living in Scottsdale, Arizona, in her youth, she made her way back to Laguna Beach and was hired to paint the Pageant of the Masters backdrops, costumes and sculptures.
“The beauty of that job is that you have to study these great masters—every brush stroke—and then re-create it on a huge scale,” Turnbull says. “… I had to learn how to leave stuff out.”
Turnbull spent 14 years painting for the pageant, alongside current Director Diane Challis Davy, who previously worked in the costume department. But after her kids were born, Turnbull needed to find a full-time job. She turned to film, television and theater, working on location for the “Nash Bridges” television show and original “Scream” film, as well as on award shows like the Academy Awards, the American Music Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. “For films, it’s usually aging things, like take this bathroom and make it look old,” she explains. “Stuff like that, and that was fun.”
As is the case with many, Turnbull was heavily inspired by Disney. “All of those films I grew up watching were so gorgeous—[especially] the backdrops. ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Bambi,’ just the artwork alone and the beautiful way they paint [is] … one of the main reasons why I became an artist,” she notes.
It’s been 23 years since she was hired by Walt Disney Imagineering, placed in a department called Show Quality Services. “We’re a little design team and we oversee the park in Anaheim,” she says. “What we do is try to maintain the original intent that Walt had started.”
As senior production designer, Turnbull is tasked with overseeing animatronic figures and animated props, specifically within the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion attractions. “When the park rehabs them—and these are machines, they have to be taken out and overhauled and redone—I’ll … be the show quality person to make sure they’re maintaining them.” Her work also includes research, especially on New Orleans, since the rides she works on are located in the park’s New Orleans Square.
But Turnbull often gets to showcase her artistic talent in the park as well, creating murals around the resort. Some notable pieces have been at Club 33 and 21 Royal in Disneyland itself plus the Magic Key Terrace in Disney California Adventure Park.
She also painted a well-received series of original pieces for the Haunted Mansion’s 50th anniversary and is creating a unique piece of art featuring Madame Leota’s seance for a celebration taking place this fall.
Whether in Laguna or elsewhere, Turnbull’s career has embraced art, but often not on her own terms. “I’ve never been able to make a living at my own art, because I’ve never really tried,” she explains. But now, for the first time, Turnbull’s acrylic pieces on canvas have been juried into this summer’s Fine Art Show at Festival of Arts.
“The thing about doing art at Disney is that it’s inspiring me to go off into this other direction with my own art,” she says.
Turnbull’s focus is her nocturne paintings, depicting dark scenes with intriguing lighting. One example is “St. Charles Ave. Nocturne,” a dramatic painting showcasing a New Orleans mansion. Another series features California missions, like “Mission San Fernando Rey,” where stars twinkle in the sky as a horse waits out front. “I just brought it to life, what it may have looked like,” she says of the mission, which was destroyed by an earthquake.
The research she does as an Imagineer spills over into her own paintings. After she has an understanding of her subject, Turnbull is ready to paint. “I don’t necessarily sketch things out,” she notes. “… I’ll just mentally sketch it out in my mind.” And while most of her pieces are crafted in acrylic paint, she also enjoys charcoal drawing. “It’s really mixed media because I start out with paint, like a watercolor, and then I go over it with the charcoal.”
Festival of Arts has been a blessing for Turnbull already. “Being an artist, you’re usually … working alone,” she explains. “… Getting feedback from the public, that’s really a new experience [for me] and it’s wonderful.”
You can feel the influence that Disney has had on Turnbull’s work, but you can also see how much depth she adds on her own. “When I’m working on a painting, I’m so immersed in it that I can start out at 10 in the morning and then look at the clock and five hours have gone by and it feels like only 30 minutes,” she says. “… I like that aspect: being so involved in something that time just whizzes by.”
Time has flown by over the years, too, but Turnbull has many magical things to show for it. From the pageant and festival to her dedication to Disney, her career has been one that most only dream of, and she isn’t done yet.
Art and Design
After being closed for two years during the pandemic, Peter Blake Gallery has reopened—by appointment—with a new exhibit that debuted in June and runs through fall. The show is titled “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a German term that roughly translates to “total or comprehensive artwork,” like when an architect designs the building, furnishings and decor to achieve a perfectly cohesive aesthetic. The exhibit features both vintage furniture (a new addition) and the modern art for which this downtown gallery is known. The space typically focuses on West Coast minimalism, particularly the California light and space movement and hard-edge painting, but has expanded to also highlight key design pieces with an emphasis on 20th century items ranging from Bauhaus to modern, bringing together art, architecture and design under one roof. Among the works currently displayed are “Morph (Beryllium),” a 2022 blow-molded acrylic piece by Gisela Colon, a “Unicorn” side table by Vladimir Kagan circa 1960 and Soriana side chairs for Cassina by Afra and Tobia Scarpa from the 1970s. (949-584-1224; peterblakegallery.com) —Sharon Stello
Philanthropy Through Photos
During Festival of Arts this summer, exhibitor Ron Azevedo is donating 20% of the proceeds from sales of his framed Ukraine photos to Come Back Alive, a nonprofit that supports Ukraine’s armed forces with technological advancements and humanitarian aid while also providing refugees with food, clean water, medicine, shelter and services. Azevedo has traveled to Ukraine three times over the past decade—in 2011, 2012 and 2017—mostly to capture images of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which he has previously shown at the festival. This year, he’s highlighting other photos from those trips that showcase the country’s beauty, history and architecture. He never edited these images until the war started and he began going through the files, selecting photos he thought people would want to see now. Azevedo also has prints of other locales for sale, but the donation only applies to the framed Ukraine photos. A San Clemente resident, Azevedo began his career as a cameraman and video tape editor for an NBC affiliate and has been recognized by National Geographic for his photos of Aspen, Colorado. Among the collectors of his work are Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino and “Criminal Minds” actors A.J. Cook and Joe Mantegna. (949-291-2196; ronazevedo.com) —S.S.
Las Laguna Art Gallery
Showing online and in the gallery, “Textures, Shapes, Patterns or Forms” highlights aesthetic properties that make art interesting, from fiber arts to 3D mixed media. The exhibition will run through September, with a reception on opening day, Sept. 1. (949-505-0950; laslagunaartgallery.com)
While most plein air paintings feature stunning displays of natural light, “From Dusk to Dawn” features nocturne imagery. The finalists will be displayed through Aug. 29 at the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association Gallery, while a show highlighting the semifinalists will be online and at Laguna Beach City Hall through Sept. 23. (949-376-3635; lpapa.org)
Through August, stop by to view two shows: “Capture the Emotions of the Cosmos” by Sunny Kim, with acrylic paintings on linen, and “Fractures and Flaws” by RoseMarie Davio, filled with mixed media pieces of paint, collage, wax and plaster. (949-497-6775; sandstonegallery.com)
The Signature Gallery
Abstract expressionist painter Jenny Simon will present a solo show in the gallery throughout August. “Ocean Dreams” will feature new abstract and seascape oil paintings filled with texture and color. (949-376-4244; thesignaturegallery.com)