A few minutes into his presentation Friday at the Starkville Library, Andy Harkness realized nothing was going as planned.
Only a few of the 80 drawings/sketches he had planned to use to illustrate his talk appeared on the screen. His microphone malfunctioned. The smaller members of his audience, a group of about 20 pre-schoolers who sat cross-legged and fidgety on the floor in the front of the room, seemed most interested in characters the Disney animator did not create.
Harkness, an Emmy-winning animator and art director has played a role in Disney’s long list of animated hits. He is coming off his most ambitious and important work, the South Pacific-themed “Moana,” whose stunning visuals are a tribute to his work as the film’s art director.
Friday’s event was a homecoming for Harkness, who was born in Ohio, but spent his childhood here.
The event drew a bigger crowd that anticipated, with library staff scrambling to set up additional chairs. About 150 folk, from little kids to senior citizens, turned out to listen to Harkness talk about his career and get autographed copies of his children’s book, “Bug Zoo.”
There were old mentors and friends — Nell Elam, his art teacher at Starkville High School — and MSU art professor Brent Funderburk, who although unsuccessful in his efforts to recruit Harkness, remained an enthusiastic supporter and confidante.
But most of the audience didn’t know Harkness personally.
They came so show their admiration for his talent.
They left, liking him for who he is — patient, easy-going, engaging, down-to-earth, self-effacing, optimistic, generous.
“Did you do Batman?” a curious child asked Harkness.
“No,” he said kneeling to be on the child’s level. “I wish I had. That would be cool.”
The line of questioning had been established.
Spiderman? No. Pokemon? Nope. Powderpuff Girls? No, not them, either.
He did, however, work on Lion King.
“When I first got to Disney as an intern, they were working on Lion King,” he said. “Do you know what I did on Lion King?”
“Simba?” a child shouted.
“I wish,” he said. “I drew one leaf, just one leaf. That’s all I got to do. But I was so happy about that. It was amazing.”
For more than an hour, Harkness told the story of his career, noting that even the smallest roles provided him with new skills and experiences that helped him move from lowly intern to art director on a major project such as Moana.
“My story, by the way, is a lot of failures along with the things that went right,” he said. “Whenever I forgot my love of drawing and painting, that’s when I got sidetracked. And when I remembered that, I would come back and things would just fall into place again. I’m most happy about my painting, still, 26 years later.”
In the back of the room, Nell Elam beamed with pride.
In her introduction, Elam recalled a portrait the teen-aged Harkness had drawn of his grandmother.
In that moment, she knew that Harkness was a special talent.
“I can still see it when I close my mind all these years later,” she said. “To have that kind of talent at 16, 17 years old…I knew something wonderful would happen. I just didn’t know what.”
Funderburk first met Harkness after being invited by Elam to speak at Starkville High. They’ve stayed in touch ever since.
“Through the years, we’ve always talked about the great artists,” Funderburk said. “Andy keeps his eyes on a higher prize. He’s not content with following a formula. He aims for greatness. Plus, he’s got that Southern humility, this grace to him.”
Harkness, his wife, Kelly, and sons Ben (7) and Eddie (2) arrived in Starkville to visit with family, including his dad, John, as part of a two-week car vacation.
That he would agree to spending three hours to interact with a crowd made up of mostly of folks he had never met did not surprise Funderburk, though.
“What he’s telling us here today is that if you do what you love doing, you’ll always have more energy, passion, more to give people all the time.
“He never stops giving.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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