George Scribner is a Disney Imagineer who grew up in Panama and was schooled in the former Canal Zone.
Now he’s going back there twice-yearly for the Panama Canal Authority to paint the process of the current expansion of the canal, which is adding another set of locks to keep it competitive in an era of ever-larger container ships.
George talked to DnA about why this century-old structure is an engineering marvel that still stirs the blood — to the point that Disney takes cruises there. He also talks about the challenges and pleasures of capturing vast infrastructure — in paint.
Read on for his story, or listen to him on this DnA broadcast about the expansion of the Panama Canal. Also, check out Panama Canal Supersized, a documentary airing this Saturday (April 11) on the History Channel. Hear from the directors, Bill Ferehawk and Dylan Robertson, also on this DnA.
DnA: How did you start your career with Disney?
George Scribner: I was born and raised in Panama. My father moved to Panama after World War II; he had a job with Warner Brothers distributing films in Central America and he loved it and never went back to the states. He met my mother in Trinidad, and they moved back to Panama. I have three brothers and we were all raised in Panama City; we learned Spanish and English.
We went to school in the former Canal Zone when the U.S. ran the school system and then I went to Emerson College in Boston and majored in film. I moved back to Panama and did some commercial work, but was looking for something else to do and read an article in a magazine that said Disney was looking for animators.
I’ve always drawn, I’d gotten into theater and directed theater and really, really enjoyed it. I thought, wow, this would be kind of a cool combination of my skill sets and so I sent Disney a letter from Panama with my portfolio. Then I got a nice letter back saying, hey, nice try, nice effort, and they outlined what I needed to work on. Anyway, I moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies and after three or four tries to get into Disney I finally succeeded and I’ve been with them ever since.
DnA: As an Imagineer, have you had a chance to work at some of the theme parks?
GS: Yes, about twelve or thirteen years ago I transferred from feature animation (he directed Oliver & Company) to Imagineering to do animation for that division.
So I directed projects that were going to be at various parks all over the world in Tokyo and Paris and Florida. One was Mickey’s Philharmagic which is now in Orlando, Florida, and I’m now working on projects for a theme park we’re building in Shanghai.
There was somebody there who saw the work I was doing for the Panama Canal expansion and said, I want the same thing for Shanghai. So I’ve been doing paintings of the construction of our theme park in Shanghai.
I guess I’ve turned into the painter of mud and trucks. But I’m blown away by these large infrastructure projects.
DnA: So tell us why you find these large infrastructure projects so fascinating as an artist.
GS: There’s two parts to it, one is just the reality of the structure itself. When I do work for the expansion, I’m given a driver and every time I go down into the lock chambers, I am stunned by the size and scale of what we’re capable of doing.
I grew up with the canal, and didn’t really think that much of it as a child. But as I got older and older, I grew to appreciate it. These large infrastructure projects are a representation of a larger belief in ourselves that we’re capable of creating for the greater good and for decades to come. I mean, the Panama Canal turned one hundred years old last year.
We’re thinking beyond our own generation and I find that greatly appealing. I’m struck by that and I’m in awe of it, and in some small way I guess I want to convey it in my paintings.
I always put a human being in any painting I do, no matter how big or what the scale of that painting is to give you that scale. I have grandsons and I want to believe that, wow, maybe I contributed a little bit to this (expansion) as a painter. I am an optimist and I want to believe that we are good and that this is an expression of us being good.
DnA: I guess we’ve also seen the unintended consequences of some of our massive engineering, so we’re in an era now where we can still build incredible, awe-inspiring pieces of infrastructure but at the same time we’ve become a little bit more savvy about that that their implications. Is that something that’s discussed in Panama?
GS: I certainly agree with you. How we got there was not the prettiest picture. How we arrived at making Panama an independent republic and what was done was not pretty. But I would point to what Panama’s doing now with the Canal expansion, and I think they have learned from that legacy.
For every sector of land that has been set aside for the locks and the channels on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific they are reforesting parts of Panama on a one-to-one basis. They have moved and transported animals within the path of the construction to other natural habitats. They’ve been very enlightened about this.
So I think hopefully we learn our lessons from the best of intentions. We screw up a lot, but I really admire the the underlying impulse.
DnA: The Panama Canal still stirs the imagination so much that it’s a tourist destination; your company, Disney, takes people on cruises there. Why do you think that is?
GS: I went to one of the Disney Cruise ships, and I spoke six or seven times on various aspects of the Panama Canal. We entered the Atlantic chambers early in the morning and everyone was up. They were all dumbstruck at the scale of these locks.
One hundred years ago, nothing of this magnitude had been constructed. We had locks on Lake Erie and other American rivers but nothing the size of this, and I think people today are still stunned that in the middle of this rain forest there are these massive concrete structures. The canal is a fresh water lake created 85 feet above sea level, there are locks on either side that raise ships and lower them to this man-made lake. It’s an ingenious design.
DnA: In terms of of capturing this mighty project, how do you tell those stories visually?
GS: Generally we agree first on what point of view we want to capture. I make three or four paintings a year, and I always stress that we need to paint part of the workforce. Then I paint on location. I’ll do a small eleven by fourteen or nine by twelve using acrylics or what are called water-mixable oil paints. I don’t like to take additional chemicals on the field. I’ll do a small study where I look for color notes. Then I come back to my studio in Los Angeles, and I will then paint it full size.
DnA: It’s fascinating that you are defaulting in a way to a traditional medium — paint — in order to capture these projects when of course one could go and set up a video and do time lapse and use all the contemporary media for depicting the the evolution of a large project like this.
GS: Oh, they are doing that as well. It’s all concurrent, it’s all just on parallel tracks. Someone felt that this was important to have an artist’s view, and I’m thrilled by the opportunity to be able to do this.
DnA: What’s going to happen to the paintings?
GS: There are plans to build a museum on the Pacific side of the canal to house not only the paintings, but those of others as well. I’m part of a group of Panamanian artists; I’ve done the bulk of the paintings, but there are other painters who painted the process as well. The museum will also contain anything that was unearthed during the construction. They’ve found a fifteenth century Spanish dagger, goblets, wine bottles, and some of the French equipment that came up from the French effort in the 1880s. It has been really kind of cool to see some of the archaeology that’s been pulled out.
DnA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
GS: For the Panamanians this is a huge coming out on the world stage. It’s an enormous source of national pride that they are building this. The Americans had their effort, now it’s their turn.
I’m really proud of it, and I’m donating the paintings. It’s my way of giving back and it’s just a small way of saying, wow, I owe this country so much and hopefully this in some way repays them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All images and paintings courtesy of George Scribner.