Peconic Pat splashes about in the center circle of Don Duga’s whimsical cover, designed specifically to adorn Dan’s Papers‘ Riverhead issue.
As might be expected from Duga, an award-winning master animator with a fabled history in Hollywood and New York, this cover art—rendered in soft, pastel watercolor hues—abounds in the kind of witty and joyous creatures Duga has created, animated and produced over the years on his own, in partnership and as part of large design teams at major film companies, doing storyboards, continuity, original work and seeing existing concepts to completion.
For five decades, his ink-outlined characters and critters have charmed adults as well as children, and they continue to draw crowds to Riverhead at holiday time when Duga graciously invites children into his world by drawing youngsters alongside some of his more famous figures, such as Frosty the Snowman, Mr. McGoo, Hostess mascots Captain Cupcake and Twinkie the Kid, Smokey the Bear and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. They love it, he loves it.
Animation hardly defines all you have done in art, but why was it your choice for a career?
A lot of my work was not for animation, though much of it was the source for animated specials on TV. I studied painting at the Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. [founded in 1921 and 40 years later merged with the L.A. Conservatory of Music to become the California Institute of the Arts]. I was never going to be in animation, I thought, but my drawing teacher said you can get paid doing animation. My big break came working for Rankin/Bass Productions where my first project was Rudolph. I’ve done many paintings, including for The Jackson 5ive TV show and of the Coneheads for Saturday Night Live. I like watercolor; it’s fast and easy. In painting, it’s just you and the canvas. I also did a series of caricature paintings of The Beatles and their time, and of Grey Gardens in East Hampton. I paint the frames for my paintings, by the way, and they become part of the work. I taught for over 30 years at the School of Visual Arts, and I’ve given classes all over the North Fork and I’m thinking now about special programs for teens.
Where do you get those imaginative ideas?
I go to zoos, I take photos, which I use as guides, and then I turn the animals into characters by exaggerating certain features. I didn’t create Mr. Magoo, but one day the writer who was doing the stories I was illustrating didn’t show and I took over (not getting credited for it, though). Animation is still a good field to go into, even though when I started students drew on paper first. Now they write and design directly on a computer.
What is it about Riverhead that you like so much?
I’m from California and have traveled in Europe. When I first came to New York I lived in the Village. My friends then would go out to the North Fork, and I fell in love with the area, but in the ’60s the large commercial studios were in the city. Where I live now it’s still a rural area, and I enjoy the people. For 35 years I had been going out to the East End but when I discovered Riverhead, I felt at home. People here seem more connected to the beach and everyone seems to know everyone. And I was impressed with how people get together, organizing for example to fight overbuilding and meet challenges. Sandy hit hard here, and I was involved in a Surviving Sandy project.
Duga’s work can be seen in any number of Riverhead restaurants and The Riverhead Library. His art is in private collections all over the world.