In 2007, Emmy-Award winning Warner Brothers animation director James Tim Walker received devastating news: he had the degenerative central nervous system disorder known as Parkinson’s disease.
“I crawled out of that doctor’s office because I figured my career was going to disintegrate right in front of my eyes,” Walker said, but instead of ending his career, the artist defied the diagnosis, re-teaching himself how to draw using his left hand and self-publishing a book about his trials in the process.
“Out of the blue, I’ve done something that would give people inspiration — in a million years I never thought I would be in these shoes,” Walker told CBR News in a one on one conversation about his struggle with Parkinson’s and his book “Drawings From the Left, Or Parkinson’s Pictures,” a compilation of sketchbooks visually detailing his progress as he learned to draw anew.
To speak with Walker is to talk to a living, breathing part of animation history. Over the course of his forty-one year career, the artist has worked at every single major animation studio in Los Angeles, including Hanna-Barbera, Disney, Filmation and Cartoon Network with twenty-two years at Warner Brothers alone and an Emmy for his work on “Samurai Jack.” Walker has experience as an animator, director and producer, having worked on everything from “The Smurfs” to “Darkwing Duck” to “The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries” to “Shinbone Alley.” He spent a good portion of his career alongside golden age Hollywood animators such as Ray Patterson and Doug Wildey. His most recent work has been on the Warner Brothers DC Entertainment properties such as “Wonder Woman,” “Justice League: The Final Frontier,” “Green Lantern: First Flight” and the television version of “Justice League.”
“I’ve worked on almost every single superhero show and DVD that has come through this place,” Walker said, succinctly summarizing his professional life.
His preoccupation with animation began around age five when he first became exposed to shows such as “Popeye” and “Mighty Mouse.”
“I thought to myself, boy, I don’t know what this is, but I want to do that! I was instantly hooked, I just started drawing all the time,” Walker told CBR News. As fortune would have it, his neighbor was the head of Channel 7 ABC publicity and told Walker where the Hanna-Barbera studio was located.
“The first time I rode my bike over there, I found a trash can full of cels, so I dumpster dove from like 1959 to 1965 at Hanna-Barbera!” laughed Walker. Salvaging by his own estimate hundreds of thousands of cells, Walker also got to meet one of his animation heroes, albeit in an unorthodox way.
“One time when I was in the trashcan, I hear ‘Hey, get out of the trashcan you knothead!’ I looked up and it was Mr. Barbera,” Walker said, laughing again.
After attending three years at the Chouinard Arts Institute and being among the first graduating class at the California Institute of the Arts, Walker settled into a career that would extend over four decades and find him in every position in the industry, from sheet-timer and in-betweener to producer and director. In 2007, however, weakness in his right arm, the arm he used to draw, brought Walker to the doctor.
“It was really out of the blue. I started to notice some weakness in my right arm — it was like I almost had to force it to write. I thought for sure it was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome because of all the writing and drawing I’ve done over the years,” said Walker. After a battery of tests and a visit to the neurologist, Walker was diagnosed with lateral Parkinson’s disease in his right side.
“I go to the neurologist and boom! He throws a left hook that just knocks me to the ground,” said Walker, adding, “I was leveled. I was devastated.”
Immediately after the diagnosis, Walker experienced what he described as the darkest 38 seconds of his life, testing not only his resolve but his victory over a prior battle with alcohol.
“At the time that this happened to me, I was eight years sober. The first thing that came into my mind was, ‘My career is over, so let’s just load up the car with Absolut and shake and bake into oblivion,'” said Walker. But he was not about to give up work in the field he loved so easily. “After about 38 seconds of that ridiculous thinking, I [remembered] how a friend of mine pounded into my head ‘problem, solution,'” said Walker, touching on his philosophy that every problem has a solution. “I thought, you know what? I’m going to teach myself how to draw and write left-handed. I know I can draw, and if I can get the information over to my left hand, I can do it.”
Instead of loading his car with liquor, Walker drove himself to the closest bookstore.
“I bought a sketchbook; I opened it up and wrote on the top of the first page ‘Drawings From The Left.’ The very first one I did when I was diagnosed you can see in [my] book,” said Walker.
What followed was four years of teaching himself to work left-handed, filling sketchbook after sketchbook with his own style of drawings. These sketchbooks form the bulk of “Drawings From the Left, Or Parkinson’s Pictures,” a veritable visual timeline. Though Walker told CBR he was surprised at how naturally he fell into the rhythm of drawing with the opposite hand, physical health problems continued to plague him in everyday life.
“I was taking my wife out to dinner one night and I was putting on a long sleeve dress shirt, and the right sleeve was kind of folded over. As you put the shirt on, you obviously have to push the right arm through the sleeve — and I don’t have the strength in my right arm to push through that folded over part,” said Walker. “Every once in a while, this disease knocks me down and I can’t get up.”
Despite these challenges Walker never again thought about giving in, and as plainly evidenced by his drawings, he has accomplished his goal and then some.
“My wife, Susan, was the one who said to me, ”These [drawings] are so inspirational, these are so inspiring.’ I thought to myself, I’m going to do a book, purely for inspiration,” said Walker.
The animation director revealed his hope for “Drawings From The Left” to encourage others to keep pursuing their dreams, no matter how great the odds against them.
“The real core message is, never give up. When you stop and think about it, I was done. My thirty-seven year career at that point was instantly over — how could that be? I love this, I never wanted to do anything but this,” said Walker.
“Hopefully, people who are going through something similar will see this book and realize, ‘Hey, this guy is doing it! I can do it too!'”
The self-published “Drawings From The Left,” debuted February 4, 2011 and is currently available on Amazon. Response has been positive, especially among his fellow Parkinson’s patients.
“I’ve gotten a lot of good responses. I gave a copy to my neurologist, and he says everybody who comes in this office goes right to that book!” said Walker. He also hoped that part of the proceeds from future printings could go towards Parkinson’s research. More than anything, Walker stressed how this battle has inspired him, and he hopes to do the same for others.
“People who look at my drawings who don’t draw go, ‘These are wonderful, I can’t draw a straight line!’ I say to them, I’m not interested in the straight line. I want to see the curved line, the sketchy line, the broken line — just draw!” said Walker.
Despite his success in battling the disease thus far, Walker realizes his fight with Parkinson’s is not over. “They don’t know if this will go to my left side or not, so my thinking is, I’m on the clock,” Walker told CBR. While he currently works as an animation timing director at Warner Brothers, he is no longer physically animating for the studio, though he makes sure to spend part of every day drawing in his latest sketchbook. “It’s challenging having the disease, but the fact that I was able to draw, I am so grateful for,” said Walker. If there is any one lesson or core idea Walker hopes people take away, it is to never give in to the internal voice that says, “You can’t.”
“When they bring kids into the studio, they’ll bring them into my office. I show them what I do, and I tell them, find inside yourself whatever your dream is. I don’t care if it’s selling shoes, being a painter, whatever — just find that dream, do it and never give up.”
Walker goes quiet for a moment. When he speaks again his voice is hoarse. “I lived my dream. How blessed is that, how lucky can you be?”
A five-year-old Walker fell in love with animation and set out to achieve his dream. If his sketchbooks are any indication, he is not letting go of it anytime soon.
“Drawings From The Left, Or Parkinson’s Pictures” is available for purchase on Amazon