Peggy Van Pelt – In Memoriam

I lost a great friend a couple of weeks ago — Peggy Van Pelt.

She was my mentor and teacher, when I worked as her assistant in the Talent Development department at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) from 1988-1992. However, Peggy had worked there for 30+ years…

Her title, when I worked there, was Creative Resources Advisor. (She had turned down the title “vice president” on more than one occasion, as she felt it would alienate her from the creative artists who would come to her for advice.)

Many artists will recall bringing their portfolios to her office for review … how scared you were initially and how surprised you were to find her so un-threatening, so helpful.

Our department provided on-going training, via workshops and events, for the artists and other employees at Disney. It was a ‘dream job’ for me, working in what felt like an art school atmosphere, with world-renowned designers and artists.

I remember Peggy as being a powerful catalyst, someone who would see into an artist’s work- style, taking into account what the artist had already accomplished, and where her/his ultimate goals were, and then helping to form a bridge between the two.

For example, when I first met Peggy, I had worked only in the music business before … with songwriters, in music publishing, working with copyrights, contracts, listening to song demos, and so forth. When she asked if I would be interested in working for her at Disney Imagineering, which designed and built theme parks worldwide, I confessed that I knew very little about visual arts. Her response was, “Don’t you know that holding a note (singing) and drawing a straight line are the same thing?”

She convinced me that what I already knew through my work with songwriters and musicians, (beginners to pros), would translate perfectly to working with visual artists. So, I accepted her offer, not realizing it would kick off one of the most broadening experiences of my life.

She provided me with access to every department, working with artists in all media, all disciplines, graphics, model-building, interior design, environmental design, audio-animatronics (robots), architecture, engineering, illustration — and summed it up by saying, “Basically, what we do here is dig a hole and put a building in it…” She left out the obvious … the part where magic is stirred into the mix, and people from all cultures, can explore their fantasies, their hopes and dreams, and revisit their childhoods … all in a package called “Disneyland.”

She allowed me to discover that certain artists are happiest when working in certain environments (just like the musicians I’d known before) … adding that we must become more familiar with our own individual creative process. For example, she would ask, “Where are you most happy in a project’s life cycle? Would it be at the beginning (the concept phase), or perhaps in the middle (during the organizing and problem-solving phases), or maybe at the end (in the production phase), where things get made real.”

She explained how some people like to be involved in the whole enchilada … from the initial idea or concept to the graduation ceremony. And yet, others are most comfortable in only one of these phases … and how they should be working alongside, in collaboration, with others who are happiest in other parts of a project’s life cycle.

Much of her work was putting together teams for projects. In fact, she and Lucia Capacchione wrote a book … Putting Your Talent to Work: Identifying, Cultivating, & Marketing Your Natural Talents.

She brought in the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, and the Myers-Briggs tests, so we could learn to appreciate the differences in our co-workers … controversial, but so helpful!

Magically, Peggy got the budget to bring in guest speakers on a regular basis. There was quite an impressive parade of them … experts who spoke on everything from Color Theory to How to Present Your Artwork to Painting Murals to Storytellers to Creating Special Effects to Roller Coaster Design to … you name it. And each meeting was inspirational, creating a stir with the artists (and other employees), and providing us with new resources.

Peggy also was an artist in her own right. She designed and made costumes, and was brilliantly adept with fabric and beads, fur, leather and feathers. Her stained-glass masks won awards, even in competition with other mask-makers at Disney …and that’s saying a lot.

Peggy certainly had flair, a sensitivity, a gentle way about her, and was one of the best listeners. She was in tune with the planet … easily recognizing other seekers as they came into view.

Those who knew her will continue to keep her memory alive in all we do.

In fact, a lot of the material in the workshops and classes I teach today (on creative process) is based, in some way, on the things that Peggy made available to us. Some of you will recall her popular creativity workshops at the Songwriters Expo in Los Angeles, many years ago. I know you do, because you still talk to me about them! wrote a book, [Those were sponsored by the no-longer-existing LA Songwriters Showcase.]

I’ll share some of Peggy’s resources with you in my next post…
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