Creator of ART

By Sherry Conohan
Photo by Rob Kaufman

His mind, he says, churns up ideas 24/7. His thoughts come so fast that he often moves on to the next sentence before finishing the last. By his own admission, he’s a workaholic.


Out of all this energy has arisen an amazing body of art created by Ralph Sutton.


“I’ve done everything,” Sutton said, over the past half century that he has wielded pen, brush and scissors going back to his high school days when he cranked out crazy cartoons that wound up in the school’s showcase.


“I’ve never done anything but art work” during his career, he added with satisfaction during a wide-ranging interview. “I never had a job.”


Sutton, who lives in Hilton Head Plantation, has been best known in recent years for the 3-Dimensional art pieces he produces behind glass in shadow boxes made just for them. They feature familiar characters out of Disney, such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, King Features’ Betty Boop and Popeye, Warner Brothers Tweety, Universal Press Syndicate’s Garfield, Mars and others.


He also has one for Cola-Cola.


The figures and scenery in the shadow boxes are made of a special paper that is dyed, not painted, to replicate the colors in their original form. He has a battery of 61 colors that can be used by the factory in China that makes them.


Sutton says the largest distributer of his 3-D art is Walgreen’s, which has over 7,000 drug stores around the country that stock them. He also has other retail store chains that buy the 3-D products to distribute around their systems.


His latest venture in 3-D work has been creating adorable replicas of people’s dogs, usually illustrated with a quirky feature. These can be purchased at Legends sports store in Main Street Village on Hilton Head Island. Buyers have their choice of a ready-made shadow box of various breeds of dogs for $195 or may custom order one to be specially made of their own dog for $295 and up.


Jerry Glenn, father of Legends’ owner Lori Glenn, who helps out in the store, said those placing a custom order must submit a photo of their dog and are asked to tell Sutton about one characteristic of their pet.


“When one lady came in to pick up a custom shadow box of her dog, she cried,” Glenn said. “It was a little Pomeranian. She said it captured her dog.”


Among Sutton’s dog art is a sweet keeper he did of his own dog, Daisy.


Sutton also did the framed caricatures that fill one wall of the bar at Frankie Bones restaurant in Main Street Village which depict regular patrons with a few celebrities mixed in. He said the owner originally wanted to do a mural of a New York scene, but the wall was too small, so they turned to the idea of the caricatures. Sutton worked from photos the restaurant took of the regulars.


Bill and Carolyn Sprague, of Hilton Head, who are among the patrons featured on one of the drawings, she with a lot of teeth, said they enjoy seeing their likeness on the wall. “I wasn’t smiling, I was laughing,” she pointed out.


Other endeavors Sutton has under taken up over the years include logos, including the Mets, a favorite, promotion for a cruise line, a large poster for a young man’s bar mitzvah showing various highlights of his life, writing and illustrating children’s books and 3-D art of the Twin Towers in New York, which were leveled by two airplanes in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.


Sutton does the Twin Towers as a fund-raiser for Tuesday’s Child. He lets the promoters charge what they want and asks only to recover the cost of the boxes in which the art is framed.


Sutton’s art life began by drawing zany cartoons at Brookfield High School in Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. He was born in Sharon, Pa.


After graduation, he went to Youngstown State University in Ohio where he says he graduated with the highest grade one can get in art after exhausting all the art courses the school had and made up some new ones. A huge honor was admission of one of his art works as a freshman in a major show at Butler American Art Institute. He was enlisted to teach commercial art and design after graduating in 1970, and taught both beginners and advanced students.


From there he branched out and founded an advertising agency in Youngstown with a friend from college that became the biggest in the area.


In the meantime, Sutton had married his wife of 44 years, Linda, in 1969 – “She’s wonderful, I love her to death” - and began visiting Hilton Head Island.


Thirty years ago, he and Linda moved to Hilton Head. “I just took off. I gave the agency (in Youngstown) to my partner and opened another one here.”


Sutton says he got started in his 3-D art when they were expecting their daughter, Kristen, who’s now 24 and working for her master’s in psychology.


“When my daughter wasn’t born yet, I did her room,” he explained. “I did one little piece and I thought, boy, I can cut this stuff out of paper and do it in 3-D. It was Minnie Mouse. And I started doing it and it took off. I have the original piece upstairs that I did for her. And I never framed it. I never put it in a frame.


“I have three patents on it and a trademark — China, Canada and here.


“I’m the only one in the country that does what I do in the way I do it,” he added. “Nobody has these. There are only two other people out there who even come close to what I’m doing and they’re photographic. I can do what they do, but they can’t do what I do because this is all created” from scratch as fresh art.


Sutton said he finds his 3-D art very satisfying because it is so creative.


“This particular kind of art is very, very creative because you won’t see the thing until it’s done,” he explained. “I build it the way I see it, but you can’t see it until it’s finished.”


Sutton began his long relationship with Disney on a visit to Walgreen’s buyers in Chicago with his former business partner, Fred Wynne, also of Hilton Head Island, to try to get the store chain to take on his new product. He said he sent samples of his shadow boxes to Chicago and Walgreen’s invited them to come to Chicago to meet with them. So they went.


“We walked into Walgreens and we were sitting in our cubicle waiting for our turn to see the buyers and Fred and I had no idea what we were doing,” he recalled. “They came out to us — we had been waiting since 9 o’clock — to take us in the back. They took us into a room that had a giant conference table and they had five people sitting at the conference table.”


Sutton and Wynne would learn the five had flown in from Disneyworld.


“They had all my stuff spread out that I had sent up and they said they hadn’t seen a product like this in decades,” Sutton went on. “And I still remember him saying that. So we got our first order from Disney. And I designed it.


“I said I’ll do Mickey through the ages. So I did four Mickeys from when he was Steamboat Willie to the present. They bought all four of those.”


That deal with Disney, he said, was the first big job they had.


Over the years Sutton has met many celebrities — particularly in the sports and racing worlds — and done caricatures of them which he has asked them to sign for him. He smiles as he relates his experiences.


“I’m running around like a kid and meeting all these guys,” he said.


“They’re all so nice,” he added.


In football, he has collected all of the Mannings — Archie, Peyton and Eli. In tennis there are Vitas Gerulatis, Bjorn Borg, llie Natasse — and Chris Evert . He also has collected one from Jan Stevens, the golfer.


In auto racing, he has sketches of Richard Petty, and his son, Kyle Petty, from NASCAR , and Bobby Rahal, from Indy racing. He also has one of Arlen Ness, custom designer of Harley Davidsons and one-of-a-kind motorcycles. And many more.


“I love cars and motorcycles,” he declared. His encounter with Chris Evert was particularly memorable. Sutton said he caught up with her at the last tournament she played at Sea Pines, which she won. “To show you how far back that was, the first prize was $75,000. Now that’s up into the millions.” He said he did a caricature of her in advance and wanted to get her to sign it, but she wasn’t allowed to come out after the tournament.


The reason she couldn’t come out, he later learned, was there had been death threats. So he was able to talk a guy guarding the entrance into taking it in to her.


“She signed it and sent it back out with a little note that said ‘Meet me in the parking before I get on the plane at 4:30,’“ he said. “My wife and I are walking over there and here comes her and her mother — nobody else around — and I came up and I had the picture and she gave me a big hug and she said ‘You made me more voluptuous than I really am’


“Chris Evert was so nice.”