CASPER, Wyo. — Animation refers to the state of being full of life or vigor. Shoshoni, a town located in the center of Wyoming near the Wind River Reservation, may be small, but it is getting animated.
Long-time Wyoming residents are likely to think of the old Yellowstone Drug Store and their famous malts when Shoshoni comes up in conversation.
The building’s current owner Ryan Tinnelli is a Casper artist breathing life into the historic structure, transforming the space into what he calls “Tinnelli’s House of Wonder Cartoon Theater and Factory.”
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“It was built by C.H. King who was President [Gerald] Ford’s grandfather,” Tinnelli said. “I feel the building itself is a magnet.”
“It was the Yellowstone Drug Store for 70-plus years and there have been millions of people that rolled through those doors.”
Tinnelli started giving tours after he bought the building in 2006. But he’s now breathing a new form of life into the structure which was built in 1906.
He likens his task to the “John Henry challenge,” referencing the African American folk hero said to have competed against a steam-powered drilling machine in a race to drive railroad stakes into the ground.
Tinnelli has been working with other artists to create hand-drawn cartoons entirely from scratch. Those cartoons are shown in five theaters at the House of Wonder.
“The word animation, if I recall the meaning, is to evoke life,” Tinnelli says in introducing the story behind the cartoons he’s creating. “I purposely have designed them to where we completely do it all from scratch.”
“We’ve developed our own kind of technology for our own style of cartoon. so it is something totally different and unique. It’s all the human brain to the human hand then all human voices.”
That means fore-going computer generated image (CGI) animation technology in favor of a more hand-and-mind intensive process.
The newest cartoon is called “Border Challenge” and required over 600 hand-drawn images. Oh, and Tinnelli didn’t allow himself or artist Savva Worden to do any erasing as they worked on the project.
“We started working on it January of this year,” he says. ” We always work later in the evenings and my purpose for that is that’s when the masses kind of start to slow down and then we can soak up a little more creative energy without having so many distractions and really get down to business.”
“It has been almost a year in the making. We use old school pegboard animation tables. And then we sketch it all, one shot. Black ink, no erasing.”
That, he says, gives the art the “life” that is hinted at in the term animation.
“I totally believe that with that medium we’re capable of producing something just as entertaining as the modern 3-D modeled animation because I almost feel that it is so processed that it kind of lacks life in a sense,” Tinnelli says.
“I don’t want to down talk anyone for using that because it is an amazing tool. But we’re just trying to think way outside the box and do something completely unique that’s not out there yet.”
Those late night drawing sessions have been taking place in Tinnelli’s downtown Casper art studio. He refers to Casper as the “factory” hub of “Tinnelli’s House of Wonder Cartoon Theater and Factory.”
Tinnelli spends a lot of time driving back and forth between Casper and Shoshoni.
“I’m always dreaming about it,” Tinnelli says of his art. “I have visions or dreams and that is the truth. And my driving, it’s funny because everybody hates the drive to Shoshoni.”
“But to be honest with you, I enjoy it because it does allow me to have that creative time to think and brainstorm.”
So what about the new cartoon “Border Challenge”?
“How can I describe this?” he begins. “It’s kind of a funny political animation about the wall [at the U.S.-Mexico border].”
“But it is more South Park-ish. The reason I say that is its kind of as politically incorrect as you can be, we’re not really taking one side or the other.”
Between his work on the cartoons, dreaming up and designing the House of Wonder, working as a tattoo artist and all the other things he does, Tinnelli works hard.
“I’ve done everything from screen printing to graphic design to oild painting to mural painting and to me animation is the ultimate art form,” he says. “I’ve been a tattoo artist at the Ink Spot for 16 years and I always said after tattooing for ten years, I would start an animation company because then I felt like I could draw anything under the sea.”
“I still tattoo probably 50 or 70 hours a week and then I still put in, this probably sounds insane, but it is really probably another 30-40 hours a week between animating and the House of Wonder. But people who know me know that’s no joke. I’m up until like 1-2 am and then I’m up at like 506 in the morning. I have ADHD so bad, I tell you I could work morning to night day after day forever.”
Some of that time is spent thinking about his artistic influences.
“What’s funny, honestly my favorite most influential cartoon when I was young was the Smurfs,” Tinnelli says. “Hanna-Barbera is amazing.”
“I’m Walt Disney’s biggest fan hands down and I’m not just saying that. I have that portrait of of Walt Disney when he was 21 on my arm.”
Tinnelli also loves a biography of Disney.
“It’s the most amazing biography I’ve ever read in my life, honestly, and then I’m huge into history,” he says. “So two years ago when I was in Los Angeles, I found his actual grave. It’s not very well known.”
“My dad always took me to old cemeteries and showed me graves of famous people you wouldn’t really expect like from Jim Bridger to all sorts of people, Custer’s brother, just weird stuff.”
Visiting Disney’s grave lingers on Tinnelli’s mind.
“It’s really weird because you think about how many millions of people go to L.A. every year to go to Disneyland and spend all that money and I’m thinking, ‘Dude, I’m standing above the man himself right now and this is free,'” he says. “And to me, it was absolutely amazing.”
Tinnelli also holds other artists who’ve created large roadside attraction-style art installations in high regard. His love of the Tom Robbins book “Another Roadside Attraction” is testament to that.
“I always say that Shoshoni is in the middle of nowhere, or how can I put this?” he begins. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Wyoming on your way to everything and that is kind of the truth.”
“You think about those crossroads there…you can go to Thermopolis, you can go to Cody, you can go to Yellowstone and Jackson and the Wind Rivers and Lander, the whole nine yards.”
The House of Wonder hearkens to the American tradition of attracting tourists into small communities with novel things to stop and see.
“So you see yourself in the tradition of, you know, places off of highways where they have the world’s largest corn,” Tinnelli said. “It’s like a huge roadside attraction. And in fact, it’s funny too, when I was really young and just started getting into art another huge influence of mine was the book ‘Another Roadside Attraction’ by Tom Robbins.”
“That book is amazing. All his books are amazing.”
Other artists who’ve created similar roadside art installations inspire Tinnelli as well.
“I’ve also been influenced by other things like the ‘Garden of Eden’ in Lucas, Kansas or ‘Bishop’s Castle’ in Southern Colorado,” he says. “I don’t know if you are familiar with those, but both of those artists spent over half of their lives building these art projects.”
“I was fortunate enough the get to have lunch with Jim Bishop. He was a Civil War veteran, so he died years ago.”
What Bishop had done with his body after he died interests Tinnelli.
“In fact, that guy’s body is in a clear lid coffin inside a cement pyramid tomb on his own art project,” Tinnelli says. “That you can walk in and see his body to this day and that continues to generate revenue to protect his art project is pretty awesome to me as an artist.”
“When you make your body your forever long art exhibit, that’s amazing.”
Tinnelli sometimes jokes about doing something artistic when he dies.
“I’m a huge paint-o-holic, anyone who knows me knows I paint everything,” he says. “I painted even my kitchen carpet. Everything. I always joke and say I’m going to have my body dipped in more than 20 different colors of paint like a dinosaur egg doing like the buddy Christ thing standing outside my building like a statue, and then as the weather ages me then I’ll turn all like crazy like a rainbow. I joke about that.”
Perhaps such vision could attract musician Kanye West to the House of Wonder from his ranch near Cody.
“I’m waiting for him to come in and it wouldn’t surprise me,” Tinnelli says.
His love for Walt Disney brings the conversation back to the House of Wonder.
“I kind of see it in like a Willy Wonka kind of way,” Tinnelli says. “This sounds weird to say but I built my Disneyland first and then started building the animation company next so that I have a venue to show the animation.”
“I built five theaters to show my own work and we profit off of concessions. So, in a sense, we’re like the movie theater and the movie company combined.”
Yes, concessions include malts, the renowned offering of the old Yellowstone Drug Store.
“I’m a crazy artist that bought the famous Yellowstone Drug Store and no matter how much I don’t want to do malts in that building, people are not giving me a choice because they want their malts, Tinnelli says. “So we do malts, hot dogs, popcorn, movie theater candy and glass bottle sodas.”
Having a new cartoon to show is exciting.
“Savva and I this whole year and all these drawings and all this work, and when we finally put it into motion, for us, that’s like the most accomplished, satisfying feeling in the world because you have no idea if it going to be complete garbage or if it going to flow and be awesome,” Tinnelli says. “So to that, I can’t even explain how satisfying of a feeling that is to create something that comes to life, you know what I mean?”
Tinnelli also sees himself as a mentor for young artists.
“You know what’s funny about Savva?” he askes. “I look at myself more as like a scout in a sense. So I kind of seek people out and she worked at Metro [Coffee Company] for quite a few years and I’ll be honest with you, she was really diligent in constantly asking me for a job for two years straight.”
“And so I stuck true to my word and gave her a job. I’m purposely recruiting artists that are students and I’m recruiting artists from Natrona County High School and from Casper College. That’s my goal because artists that are students are striving hard to make it so they’re really willing to put forth what it takes.”
Tinnelli says he tries to challenge such artists to become who they are capable of becoming.
“Okay, like Savva, she’s of the younger generation,” Tinnelli says. “I drive her crazy because she wants to do everything on her computer and I challenge her daily. She has to draw out of her head and out of her own mind and now she’s really starting to excel.”
Getting to show the new cartoon in the House of Wonder is special as well.
“There’s something about that building most definitely that makes people very curious,” Tinnelli says. “It’s kind of like the Winchester Mansion. As long as I constantly paint and build on it, then C.H. King is happy, you know?”
“My goal is just to continue to make it more and more ornate so it’s really an exciting place to come visit. I did the whole thing in all mirrors, even the ceilings, the walls so it creates like this infinite kind of optical illusion.”
Tinnelli also describes the House of Wonder style as “a cross between like psychedelic art, antique metal and it’s got a kind of Victorian elegance to it.”
The building was declared a National Landmark in 1992, he adds.
“There is some truth to that every person that’s ever walked through the doors of that place has something to say about it being haunted,” Tinnelli says. “Everyone says that. I guess to me, that leaves a little bit of intrigue. There’s kind of a cool, weird chill in the air about it.”
But Tinnelli would rather talk about cartoons. He’s already got another project underway.
“This new one we’re doing ‘Walking Blind’ is more like kind of a psychological thriller,” he says. “It’s continuing to evolve and it keeps getting better the more we’re doing it.”
Unlike “Border Wall” that cartoon will be in full color.
But sound will be done in a similar way.
“We record our sound with the human voice,” Tinnelli says. “We have like a Blue Yeto microphone and I purposely have it in the middle of the recording studio so my sound actors have to stand up and act it out and step up to the mic.”
“I purposely do that so that thy’re way more animated and you are kind of like telling a story.”
Even more is likely to follow, including possibly a special cartoon festival around the summer solstice next year.
“As far as like creative ideas, I’ve got creative ideas from now to the end of time,” Tinnelli says.
He wants people to know that Casper has an active artistic community.
“I’ve been a professional artist here for many years,” Tinnelli says. “You’ve got Tom Loepp, you’ve got Zak Pullen, there’s, you know, Shawn Rivett, you got all sorts of people of my generation that have been getting this ball rolling, but I guess I would just like it to be known what we’re doing in downtown Casper.”
“So if there are artists that are looking to do something, like hit me up, you know?”
For Tinnelli, that means finding ways to continue to breath life into things.
“Anything you can imagine you can create through animation which is why I think it’s like magic,” he says. “It really is like magic.”