Film animator reflects on value of small towns and art for children

Pixar Animation Studios director Michael Venturini recounted his hometown visit to Paso Robles over Thanksgiving Day break and counted his blessings. He considers himself fortunate to have been raised in an environment where art was as part of daily life as math and science.

“All of my family members express themselves creatively,” said Venturini.

Michael Venturini, Pixar, Paso Robles

Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)
Animator Michael Venturini

Michael’s father, Dean, is a retired printer in Paso Robles. His mother, Donna McConnell, who has a background in education, also resides on the West Coast. And City Park still bears the art work of Michael’s uncle, David, in a familiar rock carving under a large oak tree.

“When I became interested in art, I never gave up,” Venturini affirmed. “In my household, it was never a question as to whether to pursue art. When I got to a point when it became something I wanted to do with my life, I never had to question the value of being an artist.”

How children learn

As Venturini grew as an artist, he discovered that the motor skill of holding a crayon and scribbling are milestones in a child’s development.

“Young children connect a line to make a circular shape, then they’re start doing shapes within shapes, and then they start doing faces,” explained Venturini. “You can see it before they even begin speaking fluently. These are stages of development. But typically, you will hear adults say they ‘draw like a first-grader’ because often the priority in school becomes other subjects. Later in life, we make peace with ‘I’m not artistic’ while others continue to pursue it.”

Michael is married to a local girl, Shannon (Gilstrap) Venturini, both of whom graduated from Paso Robles High School in 1992, and began their coupled life right here in Paso Robles. (“Pan Jewelers is where I got my wife’s engagement ring,” he said.) Together, they are raising their family in the Bay Area, close to where Michael works at Pixar. Their three children are Nicolas (12), Maddie (11) and Alyssa (6).

“My parents were always supportive of my interest in art,” he said. “And now, with my own kids, I’m making a similar connection.”

Art in Paso Robles

When Venturini returned home for a family visit to the Central Coast, he found himself astonished at the surge of artistic elements he discovered in Paso Robles in fine art, performing arts and even food.

“Paso Robles is very fortunate compared to other small towns. There’s life in the center of town, where other cities have died,” said Venturini, He cited the youthful creative display at the Studios on the Park gallery as one example. “We have amazing artists there. I’m fascinated that you can see paintings on easels and progress from the high school kids. We went to Barrelhouse Brewing, where musicians played on a flatbed, and heard live music over at D’Anbino’s. Who would have thought 20 years ago you could have a band in town and play gigs? We didn’t have any sushi or Greek cuisine then, either. I’ve watched the community grow and have become excited.

“I didn’t learn this till I left,” says Venturini, who described an idyllic scene fit for a storyboard. “But places like Paso Robles don’t exist everywhere – a small, charming town with nice people in a country backdrop nestled close to the coast. I think the tourists who visit are a compliment. They spend a bunch of money to experience it for a couple days and later return. Paso is protected from the world, but also not exposed to a lot of the world. There’s a duality involved in its charm.”

An artist’s toolkit

Venturini credits what one experiences as part of the toolkit that makes for a team of capable actors. He discovered that animators truly are actors as expressed in every concept brought to form, every gesture and fine detail that inspire millions of people to return to theaters to share the journey.

“I am proud to have come from a small town. A lot of my identity was shaped there,” said Venturini. “What’s been interesting over the years I’ve been working in the industry is that, twenty years ago, no one knew where it was, but they do today.

“Now, I’m told how lucky I am to have grown up there. And I can say, ‘Yeah, I’m from Paso Robles.’ For me, it’s a place that evokes calm. I enjoy a similar sort of space in my backyard, where I enjoy hearing birds chirping and feeling a breeze on my face. It’s big city bustle here, but I’m still a country boy.”

What message might one Paso Robles alumnus deliver to others about one who has gone before them?

“I love any opportunity to tell any kid from any small town. I say, ‘Go on that adventure. Connect, learn from them, and know that anything is possible.'”