The King & The Mouse
by Stephanie Stewart-Howard | Photography by Jerry Atnip
You probably know Ronnie McDowell best for his soulful tribute to Elvis Presley “The King Is Gone” or perhaps for the dozen or so movies and TV spots where he’s provided chillingly accurate vocal representation of the late icon. Or maybe it’s songwriting—pieces like “Hey Mississippi” for Jimmy Buffett, for example. But the man’s remarkable gifts aren’t limited to music. He happens to be one hell of a painter. And lately that talent, with its Rockwellian style and all-American sensibility, is focused on the world created by Walt Disney.
McDowell has always painted. He says his first “good” work was a bright-red fire engine created in first grade, circa 1956 in Portland, Tennessee. In ’77, after he hit it big with “The King Is Gone,” he went to visit his dear former teacher, then in a nursing home, and heard that she still had the picture in her possession. “Well, ma’am, I’d sure love to have that,” he told her.
“Yes,” she replied. “But since you’ve become famous, I’m going to give it to my children instead.” McDowell laughs at that recollection.
“About three years ago, a friend of mine gave me a collection of drawings of Elvis I’d done in seventh grade,” he says. “He’d asked me to do them for an art contest and turned them in with his name on them. They all won blue ribbons, and I let him have the credit. But I kept painting, kept evolving. Norman Rockwell became my hero for his realism—I love to make paintings look like photos.”
McDowell’s adult work began with an Elvis (of course) painting. In the early ’70s, he had a dream about a young boy in a Mississippi shotgun shack looking in the mirror and seeing himself grown up—Elvis Aaron Presley circa 1956 at the beginning of his glory days—as if asking his future self, are you sure we’re going to get into this?
McDowell puts extensive research into his work, and the piece is filled with fragile historic detail of the home as it really looked. A print of the work hangs in Graceland today. It was so successful Loretta Lynn’s daughter asked him to immortalize her mother in the same way. Then he painted young Oprah Winfrey, getting home details like a photo of JFK on her dresser and, on the wall, one of her grandmother from a tiny, black-and-white photo.
Two years ago, the great George Jones asked for a picture of himself being arrested on his John Deere for a DUI. McDowell went over, camera in hand, shot Jones on the tractor at every angle, and went home and painted true to life. He took it over to Jones on Christmas Day. “I put on a Santa hat, and you’d have thought I gave [Jones] Fort Knox.” From Dolly Parton to Johnny Depp, he has pegged celebrities as few artists dare.
Now, inspired by his adult children, McDowell has turned his talents to paying tribute to the work of Walt Disney, and the paintings are so extraordinary they have captured the imagination of Disney Fine Arts. His daughter Athena submitted the work to Disney, and now it is about to be introduced to the world.
It started with an idea from Tyler, McDowell’s son—an image of Walt getting ready to go to California from Kansas City in 1923, strutting train-side with Mickey Mouse at his side. It’s got all the Disney sense of magic. When his daughter sent it to Disney, they were ready to sign him to a contract immediately.
From there came other works, notably black-and-white images of Mickey with Oswald the Rabbit, Walt’s original character (stolen from him and the rights only newly returned, eighty years later), and Elvis teaching Mickey to dance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
There is much more to come from McDowell—Disney and who knows where else his talent may take him. Anyone who tries to pigeonhole this talent is wasting their time; it’s abundantly clear that he has a big imagination and a bigger heart. It shows in all he does, in music, art, and life.
For more information about Ronnie McDowell and his art, visit his website www.ronniemcdowell.com.