Within the local landscape, San Antonio native Eric Fonseca is perhaps best recognized for his 2010 film The Fall of the House of Usher — a stop-motion animation adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story that took him four years to complete. Staged in an intensely detailed model house haunted by Gothy puppets with hollow eye sockets, that labor of love landed Fonseca on the cover of the Current and earned him the Best Filmmaker award at the San Antonio Film Festival. Fonseca’s work, however, extends beyond the realm of film to encompass painting, sculpture, graphic design, theatrical makeup and scenic design.
As a kid growing up on the city’s South Side, Fonseca frequently paused the family VCR to sketch frozen frames from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and other animated classics. In second grade, he was elected as the best artist to draw the class Christmas card. “That’s my earliest memory of a connection [to] the word ‘artist,’” Fonseca recalled. With his young eye focused on a career in art, Fonseca soon starting dreaming of a job as a Disney animator.
After graduating from Holy Cross High School, Fonseca experienced ups and downs in his first “big boy art classes” at San Antonio College. During a period of discouragement and distraction, he put college on hold and slowly but surely started showing his paintings in galleries and freelancing as a graphic designer.
In 2009, Fonseca got a call that changed his course. A friend working at Six Flags Fiesta Texas wondered if he’d be willing to put his painting skills to use as makeup artist for the Halloween spooktacular Fright Fest. Fonseca jumped at the opportunity. “It sounded like a fun, easy gig, meeting all these crazy, energetic performers, big personalities, and airbrushing them into ghouls and monsters,” he recalled. That seasonal gig evolved into a full-time job as a park scenic. Although he stepped down from his post in 2013 to focus on personal endeavors, he quickly returned on different terms — as a subcontractor under the wing of pyrotechnics wiz Jacob Dell.
Fonseca’s current arrangement has allowed him to keep a multitasking hand in horror-themed projects at Six Flags (both in San Antonio and New Jersey) and other amusement parks while pursuing his own work — chiefly paintings that marry midcentury aesthetics and dark, comic riffs on everything from the Little Mermaid to the Last Temptation of Christ. Although Fonseca hasn’t exhibited in a gallery for a few years, he consistently shows and sells his work via Instagram (@ericfonsecaart
) and even caught the attention of a Disney art director who’s encouraged him to rekindle his childhood dream of working in the big leagues.
In keeping with the season upon us, we caught up with Fonseca as he was prepping his house for a Medusa-themed Halloween disco party promising plenty of rubber snakes, mirror balls and revelry in sequined togas.
When did you start dreaming about working for Disney? And was there a turning point when you decided to pursue projects closer to home?
I started thinking about a career in animation when I saw a TV commercial for Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. There was something so intriguing about Jessica Rabbit’s cartoony-ness and yet the character was very real in her appeal. I knew then I wanted to capture that same magic somehow. I wanted to work for Disney as an animator. But as I was graduating from high school, the industry began to change to CGI animation. I felt the writing on the wall. So I began to focus more on painting and looking for artistic opportunities at home. It was a bit heartbreaking to let a childhood dream go.
Beyond Disney, who are some of your key influences? I would imagine Tim Burton?
There are always influences as we watch others and Disney and Burton were definitely in there for me. But as time went on, the work of [illustrators] Kay Nielsen, Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle caught my eye. After some time, the graphic artists of the midcentury started to influence [me] — vintage album art and retro cocktail recipe illustrations were seeping into my subconscious. All of this felt fresh and familiar to me, so I painted what felt right.
What are some of the more memorable things you’ve created for Six Flags?
Well, there’s been so much now. [Laughs] … Scary clown sculptures … spooky trees. And working with Jacob led into more haunted stuff with them. I was able to design a couple of haunted houses from scratch. … This last one we did was the Midnight Museum of the Macabre. … It’s sort of like a prequel to the old film The Cabinet of Caligari. Instead of Caligari showing the somnambulist in his circus, this is him opening up a hoarder’s trash macabre museum. And it’s just full of things under bell jars and weird things in aquariums, and he’s probably stitched monsters together … There’s a room that’s an ode to automaton, like windup people. So you walk into that and then you’re in an unlucky hallway. Then you’re in a room of oddities … If you make it to the end, [you’ll reach a room of] “abominations.” … So we have Miss Tiddlywinks, a cycloptic girl. The Elephant Boy is Dr. Bird, who’s sort of the plague doctor. There’s a dragon girl. There’s a medusa character in a box. It’s a good haunt. It’s cute and it’s ultimately my favorite. It’s probably the smallest one we’ve done but it packs the most punch.
Have you done any animated projects since The Fall of the House of Usher?
I’ve done a couple of pieces for some of the shows at Six Flags. I got to do a [stop-motion] animated section for the summer show that just retired. They project shows onto the side of a cliff and the idea was sort of like video mapping. The cliff comes to life and then out of the rock comes this fire demon. And that’s when all the pyro’s going off. So they were able to use the animation as a means to get to the pyro. Because that’s really the show. So that was kind of cool. It was out of nowhere like, “Hey we want you to do the spooky section of the summer show.” I like being known as the guy who’s the go-to for spooky stuff.
Talk a bit about the Disney art director you met with this summer.
I met [him] on Instagram … and went out to meet him in July. It was great [and] kind of sparked an old dream that I thought was dead — about working for Disney. It’s weird when you have a dream for so long about something and it doesn’t pan out that way. … He said, “You’ve got what it takes, but now that you’ve been working on your own, would you be happy in a cubicle working here? [Drawing] what we want you to draw, [doing] one thing only?” Around here, being an artist is fun and cute and you sell work or whatever. But in other cities, it’s an absolute money-making industry … and it doesn’t feel like that here.
Did that experience inspire your work in any way?
Well, I came back with a fervor to tweak a portfolio. Because my work is all over the map according to someone at Disney. They were like, “You need to really focus on what you want to apply for” — which I think would probably be something in the vein of character design. But again, I don’t know. The industry has changed, and I’ve certainly changed.
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