Ben Van Beusekom has made his career as an artist - working with Disney Imagineering to design some of the company's famous park attractions - but his passion lies in storytelling.
It was this passion, Van Beusekom said, that inspired him to go back to school 20 years after he started working for Disney to study graphic design online with a focus on 3D modeling and animation at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
"I knew that if I built up my technical knowledge, that it can only make me a stronger artist in everything I do," Van Beusekom said. "When you have this technical knowledge, you can look at things differently and understand things differently. It's important when you're telling a story to be able to look at things from different points of view."
Van Beusekom said he is looking forward to completing his online graphic design degree and advancing his artistic career with Disney and his personal projects.
He started working at Disney in 1998, when his college roommate got a job on the entertainment side of the park and suggested he join her. At the suggestion of a colleague who saw Van Beusekom's drawings of scenes from the park, he took examples of his work to the art department and asked for a job. He was told his work had potential, but that he should continue to work on his craft and build his portfolio.
So Beusekom did just that. For the next four years he continued to work to improve his artistic and technical skills, checking in with the art department at Disney every few months. That perseverance paid off in 2002, when he got a call that there was a job for him.
In the 20 years since he first began working for Disney on the entertainment side, Van Beusekom has become an important member of the company's art department and now works as a Disney Imagineer in charge of character paint and finishing for some of the park's biggest attractions.
In this role, Van Beusekom is responsible for the overall look and feel of park attractions and hotels, designing and selecting the best colors and textures for everything from building walls and park benches to walkways and shingles. Van Beusekom has also created concept drawings for future attractions and destinations, and works with vendors from around the world to bring these designs to life.
"When we design an attraction, someone needs to do the research and ensure that if the theme is 1920s France, that everything fits that theme," Van Beusekom said. "I choose the colors and develop and design faux finishes to tell the most detailed and the most accurate story."
He worked on the 2010 expansion of Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland, for Disney's Hawaii resort, Aulani, and even, during a short break from working for Disney, the village of Hogsmeade at Universal Studio's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Throughout his time with Disney, he's also made it a priority to continue to develop his personal artistic style and works on a unique mix of couture fashion, textile sculptures, handbags and paintings. Much like his work with Disney, his personal work is inspired by color and works to evoke a sense of fantasy, from ornate gas masks covered in pearls and feathers to brightly colored paintings showcasing the beauty of the outside world.
Despite his professional and personal success, Van Beusekom said he believes that artists should never stop learning and honing their craft. It was this belief that inspired him to go back to school. And it was the flexibility of SNHU's online graphic design degree program that led him to enroll in the university.
"Like any field, art changes and evolves as process evolves and material evolves," he said. "You want to be relevant and always want to be able to appeal to a broad audience. I want to continue to evolve my art. I want to continue with my personal work and to push it to find a happy blend where you don't lose the importance of the traditional medium, but can enhance storytelling with graphics and with the digital side."
Studying graphic design online, he said, has made continuing his education possible while working full-time and traveling internationally for professional projects.
"You can be flying across the world and carry your computer with you," he said. "SNHU gives you this ability to carve out the best education, pull in all of your experiences, apply it to your homework and do it on your own time. For me, that was a big deal."
Van Beusekom is one year into the graphic design program and said he's already seen the impact that his learning has had on his day-to-day work. His role at Disney has increasingly involved the use of various graphic design technology, an area in which he is primarily self-taught. His degree program's focus on 3D modeling has helped give him a leg up when utilizing these new and evolving design programs.
"I'm learning to use this technology in a different way and it's giving me efficiencies and streamlining how I design," he said. "It's enabling me to design stronger stories."
That ability to be a better storyteller, Van Beusekom said, is priceless.
"It's about being able to create pockets of happiness for people," he said. "The world is a rough place in any year. Everyone's got problems - divorce, student loans, all the stuff that weighs on you. But nothing is better than the moment you see a family in the park and realize they're lost in their laughter.
"For that moment they're just happy, and that's what you try to achieve."