An Interview with Artist Sam Carter

Sam Carter

Featured at this year’s Epcot International Festival of the Arts at Walt Disney World, is artist Sam Carter.  This may be Sam’s first experience at the Festival of the Arts but he’s no stranger to the guests. Sam is well known among Disney aficionados so it is no surprise that his artwork has been selling out.  Perhaps it’s because Sam is able to capture the feeling and nostalgia of the attractions in the Pop Art style he creates, which quickly draws in his audience’s attention.  Whether it be his “Crooning in the Tiki Room” piece depicting the birds brightly signing words from Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction, or his “Progress” painting depicting the many eras in time the Father character John travels in the Carousel of Progress attraction, the art is captivating, purposeful, and just simply fun to look at.

I was able to meet with Sam over a brief Zoom session.  We talked about his love of Disney art, his long career at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California and how he became a WonderGround Gallery Artist creating memorable pieces of art.

Sam Meets The Master Illustrator

Sam: “Ever since I was a kid I was into Disney Gallery art.  I don’t know how many 10 year old kids knew artists names like I did, but there was an artist named Charles Boyer, who did a ton of artwork for Disney and my mom knew I was into art and that I liked him.  She found out that he was going to appear at the Disneyland Gallery and brought me to meet him.  He autographed a lithograph for me, to this day it still hangs in my room, and I absolutely adore it.  I think that’s what planted the seed, yep, that’s what I want to do.”

(Photo Credit: Sam Carter) 10 year old Sam Carter with Disney Legend Charles Boyer

Disney Legend Charles Boyer was Disneyland’s first full-time artist, and because of his 45 years with the resort, was known as Disneyland’s master illustrator.

Credit: Walt Disney Archives: Disney Legend Charles Boyer and two of his famous art pieces: “The Disney Evening Post” and “Partners.”

After Sam talked to Charles Boyer, just that one day was all it took for him to be inspired to study Boyer’s style.  Sam began to notice Boyer’s composition, how he placed things in certain areas in his paintings and how he would paint his characters because, as Sam explained, “There’s a difference in how you draw a character, are you drawing the character how it appears in a cartoon or do you draw Mickey how he looks in his costume in a parade?  You have to really decide what this is for and you have to be strategic, wondering who the audience is.”

Sam Becomes a Disneyland Cast Member

Many of Sam’s art pieces reflect the best of Disney’s in-Park Entertainment, it’s self-reflective as Sam spent a great many years working in the parades at the Disneyland Resort.

In 1995, Sam would begin to work at Disneyland in the Parades and Show Support Department.  He was hired as a float driver for the epic summer of when the best day and night parade of all time (in my humble opinion) ran together, The Lion King Celebration Parade by day and the Main Street Electrical Parade at night. In 1997, Sam would be inspired by another daytime parade he worked, the Hercules Victory Parade

Photo Credit: Sam Carter Hercules Victory Parade 1997

The entire time he was in the parade department, he was trying to get into the Art Department.  By 2005, ten years later, Sam shared with me that he was trying to get noticed and it just wasn’t happening.  Ten years had gone by and then he decided that he would paint a mural in the Parade building, located backstage.

Sam: “I painted the mural just for the fun of it (with permission of course).  I loved the history and I thought the parade performers needed to know what part of this legacy they’re all in.  Hey, you’re in a Disneyland parade!  This goes back to Walt’s days and now you’re a part of that and I thought that was cool to teach that lesson to everyone that walked down those hallways.”

Having worked with Sam in the Parade Department and seeing the beginnings of his mural take shape was perhaps one of the coolest things I had ever seen during my years in that department.  Sam had always been so gracious with his artistry.  He would create the designs for the cast parade t-shirts, create keepsakes for the Tink Crew (masters of flight that helped Tinkerbell fly, if she didn’t have enough Pixie Dust that is) and for me, well, he created a team logo shirt when I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999.  It was just something he did.  To this day, if Sam created it, even if it was 25 years or more ago, we still have what he made for us.  We all saw the talent Sam had and we, as a tight-knit Cast Member family were always so proud of him. 

The building where the mural is located is occupied by all Cast Members required to pull off a parade, the performers, the float drivers, makeup artists, wig specialists, choreographers, and the like.  Every time someone walks down the hallway, they are reminded that they are a part of that legacy that started back when Walt Disney first opened his park in 1955.  It was another gift from Sam to his Parade family. 

No one can walk through the parade building without seeing Sam’s mural, which finally led to eyes being opened by those in Disney Creative Entertainment. It wouldn’t be too much longer until Sam was on their radar, and soon thereafter, Sam would be hired as an Art Specialist designing events of all sizes for the Disneyland Resort in Creative Entertainment.

The Santa Car and John Lasseter

As a Creative Event Designer, Sam created some epic unforgettable moments at the Disneyland Resort.  One in particular that came to Sam’s mind was the Cars Land Christmas Billboard Overlay. Which Sam described as “Super fun.”

Credit: Sam Carter

Sam: “I loved that.  It’s funny, because when I was drawing it, I had to check in with Pixar and send them my artwork for approvals.  Pixar was making sure it was how it should be, and it was a humongous file.  It kept crashing my computer!

Sam went on to tell me that he was bouncing off ideas with Dave Caranci, of Resort Enhancement, (who has since been promoted to Manager Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering) about the designs he wanted to create for the billboard.  Sam told Dave he wanted to add snowflakes to the billboard and that’s when Dave let Sam know that his team was making snowflakes out of wrenches to be placed throughout Cars Land, which gave Sam the idea for the snowflake wrenches that he would then add to his billboard design. 

Next, Sam wanted to add a Santa car with reindeer to his billboard.  He’d need to receive Pixar approval again, and that’s when he recounted an exciting moment.

Photo/Design Credit: Sam Carter

Sam: “I wanted a Santa car with reindeer.   Pixar got back to me and actually sent me a scanned sketch from (John) Lasseter with his writing saying what he always pictured a Santa car would look like.  I HAVE A SKETCH FROM JOHN LASSETER saying make it look like this!  The reindeer are jet skis and Santa is a big red Chrysler with a sled.  So, if you look closely at the artwork for Santa and the reindeer, that’s based off the artwork Lasseter had already envisioned and sent to me.”

The Buena Vista Street Christmas Tree

Design Credit: Sam Carter

I remembered Sam had also created something very special with the Christmas tree located on Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure Park and I asked him to explain to me more about the involvement of the design process. 

Sam: “Oh yes, the tree design at Disney California Adventure Park.  At Creative Entertainment, our offices are next door to Resort Enhancement and I became good friends with Dave Carranci.  We were talking about Christmas and he was bouncing ideas off of me, what should a tree look like in 1930’s Los Angeles?  We were brainstorming and thinking about it.  Then he asked me to help with ornaments. Back in the 1930’s, Walt Disney licensed and sold Christmas lights with characters on each light and on each light was a bell.  We both did research and we found pictures of what they looked like in the 1930’s. There’s this Clarabelle and Horace, Mickey and Minnie carrying a Christmas tree, and Goofy playing a flute.  I hand drew each drawing as it looked back then. They were then made (from Sam’s drawings) and so now the ornaments at Disney California Adventure are based on the ornaments from the 1930’s.  No one is going to know that, but what I’m hoping is, some grandma or grandpa is going to walk over there and see that and get a flashback, and think ‘I had that when I was a kid.’ I just hope one grandma or grandpa gets to see that.  That’s what I’m hoping for.  I haven’t heard of that happening yet, but it’s possible, right?”  

Photo Credit Sam Carter: 1930’s Mickey Mouse lights far left and Sam’s designed bells, artwork and design by Sam Carter

I don’t know if any grandparent has seen Sam’s ornaments and if, by doing so, it brought them back to a moment of joy from their childhood, but that continues to show how Sam creates his art.  Everything he puts into his artwork is intentional to provoke a feeling, a memory. 

“Fight on for ol’ SC…”

Sam would remain with Creative Art Entertainment at the Disneyland Resort for seven years until 2012, when he was handpicked and offered a job as Creative Director of Design at the University of Southern California.  It was an epic jump up for Sam.  Although it was a great career move, it lacked the Pixie dust Sam was used to.  But, the benefit of no longer being a Cast Member for the Walt Disney Company, meant that Sam could begin to consult for other theme parks and attractions, like at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Springfield land, where he created the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck design and designed a light parade for Six Flags Magic Mountain, all the while maintain his position at USC.

Photo/Design Credit Sam Carter Creative

During this time, Sam also created an elevated North Pole fantasy voyage on the Queen Mary docked in Long Beach, California.  For this special event, Sam would single handedly create the concept down to instructing the employees working the event on how important it was that they, too, were in on the magical story that the ship was travelling to the North Pole. 

Photo/Design Credit Sam Carter Creative

Becoming a WonderGround Gallery Artist

Not working as a Cast Member had another benefit for Sam, he could now become a gallery artist, like Charles Boyer before him.  WonderGround Gallery had long wanted Sam’s art pieces in their showroom, but because Sam was a Cast Member, there was a conflict, and they could not show his pieces.  But by 2012, Sam was no longer an employee of the MOUSE, and so by 2013, Sam had his first art signing during his birthday weekend at WonderGround Gallery at Downtown Disney in Anaheim. 

Paintings by Sam Carter Art:

Sam: “It was a dream come true.  I had a signing at WonderGround.  I had 4 pieces in their gallery that 1st year.  Beauty and the Beast, Wreck it Ralph, Mulan and the Lion King.  After that show, I was trying to get in the show again, but it was taking a long time and I didn’t get back into the gallery until 2019.  It took 6 years after my first signing to get another group of art going and that’s when I did my Fantasmic! piece, because I keep trying to push the Entertainment side.  I also had the Country Bear Jamboree painting, which is one my most favorite things ever and those went crazy viral, people loved them and then WonderGround asked, ‘What more can you do? What else can you show us?’”  

Paintings by Sam Carter Art

Four More Pieces…next stop Epcot

Sam pitched to WonderGround the ideas he had for his next art pieces and several of his ideas were chosen.  Sam went on to tell me that these paintings became his quarantine projects and then he explained that while he calls his art paintings, they are digital art and he further explained his process,

Sam: “Ever since I started working at USC in L.A., I’d take the train there every day and I’d have my MacBook and digital drawing pad.  I was doing all my artwork on the train so that’s how I left the acrylic paint in the dust and started doing digital pixels, I still call it paint because I draw it first and then draw it again on a computer.”

By the beginning of 2020, right before the pandemic happened, Sam had taken a leap of faith and left his Directorship at USC to concentrate on his consulting business, Sam Carter Art, as well as his art pieces for WonderGround.

The artwork that the gallery had chosen were two more Country Bear pieces to flank the piece he had created back in 2013 (Big Al to be displayed one side while Henry is on the other side).  The Country Bear pieces ended up evolving into just Big Al for this year, but Sam is hoping he’ll create Henry for the other side in the future, as he has envisioned the three paintings being displayed together. 

Following Big Al, Sam was also approved to paint his Carousel of Progress piece, The Muses, (from the parade that Sam loved), and the Enchanting Tiki Room.

Credit: Sam Carter Art

Sam:  “It’s the first time where I think that these 4 pieces are the best things I have ever done.  I can’t really say that about past artwork, I’m really picky with stuff I put out there.  I took a lot of critique classes at Cal State Fullerton and the critiques are really beaten into you, so I’m able to not take it personally.  I have a mindset of well, I make it perfect so no one can critique it.  I put that amount of time into it.  But, even if they do critique it, art is subjective, so they can have their own opinion, and that’s fine, but I make sure every detail I do, there’s a reason for it.  Whether it’s my gallery art or whether it’s a design for a theme park.  Nothing is done by accident, there’s a reason for everything and every piece is loaded with stuff. 

“Where the Birds Sing Words and the Flowers Croon…”

Sam Carter Art Original Piece

I asked Sam about his creative process in painting these 4 newest iconic pieces that premiered at the Festival of the Arts at Epcot this year.

Sam: “Well, while I work on each piece, I listen to the music for the attraction.  The Tiki Room is only 20 minutes long and it takes hours to make this painting, so I found on YouTube the Trader Sam’s background music so I listened to this cool music, and then I start to work on it.  The music is going and the kids walk in and say, ‘Oh Tiki Room, cool.’ They don’t know what I’m doing, but they’ll see something on my computer screen and then they go to Disneyland and they’ll see it on the wall and they are like, ‘Hey, that’s what you did at home.’  They are starting to put it together. They know we’re going to Walt Disney World for Daddy’s art show.  It’s pretty awesome.” 

Credit/Design: Carter Creative – Be sure to stop by the WonderGround tent in the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot to see Sam Carter through January 26th

What’s Next?

I asked Sam if he had any exciting projects on the horizon and he told me that he is helping out with the design of a video game.  He’s there to make sure that it has an elevated quality and style to it and he will also be doing the logos and branding.  He tells me that he never thought he’d be working on a video game, but this is a perfect time for him to be working on it, because he can create from home.  Though it won’t be out for another two years from now, Sam says he’s having a blast.

Sam also gave me an inside scoop and told me he designed the 50th anniversary popcorn buckets for Walt Disney World.

 Sam:  “I feel like Disneyland’s 50th anniversary was 10 minutes ago.  So to be working on the 50th at Walt Disney World is so cool.  I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff.  I’ve had it finished since over the Christmas break, but nobody will get to see it until October 1st when the 50th anniversary celebration begins.   It’s so hard to work on stuff for a year or so and I can’t share it, I’m a chatty guy, I want to show it, but I can’t.  When you design for a popcorn bucket, it’s a Walt Disney popcorn bucket, not a Sam Carter Art piece, but I still know I did it and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

It’s in the Blood

Sam Carter, a self-taught artist, credits his parents for the abilities he has today.  His mother would take Sam to Disneyland often and nurtured his artistic talent.  Sam is also a son of an aerospace engineer. His father was a brilliant man who would find joy in drawing caricatures for his friends at work. It wasn’t until after his father’s passing that Sam took a closer look at the art his father had created. Seeing his father’s art hit him differently than it had before. Sam discovered that his father wasn’t just a strategic left brain thinker. He discovered his dad did indeed have creative skills. Sam has since discovered within himself, that he’s more like his father than he thought, as Sam said, “I’ve found myself drifting to left brain design since my artwork is so thought out and meticulously detailed.” Methodical creativity must run strong in the blood of the Carter family.

Sam: “The thing that I need to pinch myself on is when I look back, to being that 10 year old kid and getting excited to see Charles Boyer, it’s what I get to do now.  So, whenever I get down on the dumps, I remind myself that I actually get to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s not my full-time job, I do it for fun.”

Check out these fantastic short clips showing Sam creating some extra magic for 4 original pieces that can be purchased at Epcot during the Festival of the Arts.

Where you can find Sam: On Instagram @cartarsauce

On Twitter @cartarsauce

Website: Creative Art Services Request or to access his store and blog.