Inside the old Burbank switchboard facility that Cartoon Network calls home, the “Mazeway to Heaven” climbs up the inside of a six-story stairwell. It creeps past the floor where Adventure Time's artists plot quests for Finn and Jake and the one where the teams behind Steven Universe and Regular Show bring their own quirky characters to life. The maze-mural's thick, cloudlike curves peek from behind exposed pipes and spread out onto landings. It scales to heights that can only be reached with the help of scaffolding, and winds to a finish near a door that leads to the rooftop patio where studio employees meet for lunch, drawing sessions and the occasional talent show.
Ian Anderson is the Glendale-based artist behind the mind-boggling work. In the hours before the official unveiling of the project, he notices remnants of the blue tape he posted when trying to solve the maze himself. Even though Anderson is its creator, it took him a few hours to navigate the complicated tangle of pathways.
It's not an easy maze. There are some dead ends, like the ones you may have encountered on the pages of activity books as a kid. More likely, though, you'll end up running in circles. Anderson says he likes it that way: “You don't really know that you're lost.”
The piece is so large that Anderson recently submitted it to the Guinness Book of World Records for recognition in the hand-drawn maze category. Unfortunately, it didn't meet the criteria, which stipulated that mazes had to be created on canvas or paper and that the paths had to be much more narrow than the ones Anderson made with an acrylic paint marker. He plans to submit again for a new category.
With a ski cap pulled over his longish hair, Anderson looks younger than his 24 years. He's new to the professional art game. A part-time animation teacher and former bassist for local band Kan Wakan, Anderson only began pursuing his visual-arts career a year and a half ago. While the Cartoon Network project marks both his first mural and his first art show, Anderson has been making mazes for a long time.
Born in the Philippines, Anderson moved to Southern California with his mother when he was 10. He started drawing mazes as a very young child — maybe age 4 or 5, he estimates — because his mom wouldn't let him play video games. As an adult, his love of creating mazes is central to his work.
A smattering of Anderson's art is on display in a gallery off of Cartoon Network's library. There's a pair of Vans covered in multiple mazes that he drew with Sharpies. The ink is long-lasting, he says, pulling out a 3-year-old pair of sneakers covered in tiny cartoon characters as an example. The shoes are worn, but the drawings still pop.
He decorated a bike with a maze, too. It's propped up inside the gallery and is still, technically, a work in progress. Anderson plans to cover the whole thing — “even the grip tape” — with mazes.
Then there's “Very Difficult Maze,” a piece that was commissioned by Cartoon Network's chief content officer, Rob Sorcher, and essentially launched this whole project. Its lines are so fine that, from a distance, it looks like some kind of swarm. “I don't expect anybody to solve this,” Anderson says. “But, if you want to solve it, then I feel bad for you.”
Beyond the mazes, he draws intricate patterns, such as large clusters of vines that seem to crawl across shoes and up paper. He adorns his work with tiny cartoon characters, original creations that often reveal influences ranging from The Simpsons to anime. He'll repeat characters, like a Grim Reaper, throughout the works. He also adds small blocks of words to pieces, not as messages but because he likes the way the letters look.
Anderson teaches animation at Exceptional Minds, a vocational school for people on the autism spectrum. Sometime in the fall of 2014, Sorcher spoke at the school and Anderson took the opportunity to show the executive his sketchbook. Sorcher was impressed.
Soon after that, Anderson sold his first piece and used the money to go part-time at his day job, so that he could focus on his art. Then Sorcher commissioned “Very Difficult Maze,” which took Anderson about three months to complete. In mid-2015, Anderson was invited to exhibit his work at Cartoon Network's gallery. Over the course of roughly the past year he has completed a dozen new works; he combined those with older pieces for his first art show, which opened June 7.
Sorcher doesn't run the studio's gallery — he oversees content across the network's various platforms — but he was instrumental in getting Anderson's work inside the studio. He gets visibly excited when talking about Anderson's art. “I really responded to this young artist who drew everything tiny — so tiny — and it really felt very much like a Cartoon Network character maker, right?”
Sorcher looks at the piece he commissioned from Anderson, still marveling at its fine details. “I love the playfulness of it. I love the whole concept of it,” he says. “I was obsessed with mazes myself as a kid.”
After Anderson completed “Very Difficult Maze,” Sorcher wondered if an artist so skilled in drawing small could go big. Anderson hadn't created any large-scale works, but he was willing to give it a shot. He bought a bunch of sizable canvases and got to work, emailing photos of the results to Sorcher. Anderson says he wasn't enthusiastic about those experiments — he was still trying to figure out a process for making something so grand — but Cartoon Network asked him to come in and take over the stairwell.
“I really didn't know how it was going to turn out,” he says. “The voice inside of me was like, 'You're at Cartoon Network, man. Don't mess this up. You can do this.'”
Anderson had estimated that the project would take three months to complete, but he finished it in half that time. Initially, he had planned to draw in the solution with ink that would only show under black light, but that didn't work out so well. “When I tried to use the marker, it wasn't so invisible,” Anderson explains. So he worked with a photographer to take a series of pictures of the maze with blue tape arranged like “Pac-Man dots” along the correct route. Anderson then used Photoshop to draw in the solution and gave those images to Cartoon Network to accompany the wall piece. It's a fun, unusual work that makes sense at the studio that produced lots of fun and unusual shows.
To illustrate how Anderson's artwork fits in with the animation studio, Sorcher darts across the complex to show off all the cool items here. There are paintings by noted artists of famed Cartoon Network characters, and the staff has scribbled graffiti on the walls. Despite its corporate ties — Cartoon Network is part of the Turner family of TV stations, which falls under the greater Time Warner banner — this is an art-driven office. Sorcher estimates that nearly 400 of the employees here are artists. The shows that come out of this studio start out as storyboards, not scripts, in a way that's similar to how animation greats such as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones worked. Much of what exists inside the studio is there to help the artists create, which extends to the art shows that the company hosts on-site. Sorcher says Anderson's style jells well with what's going on at the studio.
“Even though he's a fine artist, I can see him being a fantastic character designer, working in animation,” Sorcher says of Anderson. “Whatever he wants to do, he can choose. He's of a type of talent that I think generally fits in with what we're doing here, and the work reflects that as well.”