Disney is certainly a company that is in the business of fairy tales, and this year they are making one St. Charles Parish Public Schools art teacher’s dreams come true.
Sharika Mahdi, the talented art teacher at Albert Cammon and RK Smith middle schools, said she didn’t believe it was real when she received an email last year from the Walt Disney Company asking her for help.
“It kind of went like this – I got an email from a creative producer at Imagineering,” she said. “I was like, ‘Really, someone from Disney?’ It took a minute for it to sink in.”
Madhi said she looked up the email address to make sure it was legitimate before she got too excited.
“I didn’t know if I was just getting spammed,” Madhi said laughing. “When I saw it was real I got a little excited.”
The email was followed up with a phone call last fall, where Madhi heard Disney’s pitch.
“They were looking for some New Orleans talent because they’re in the process of reimagining Splash Mountain,” she said. “They wanted an artist to provide inspiration.”
Disney’s “Princess and the Frog” is a modern-day fairytale inspired by and set in New Orleans. Disney has announced they are in the process of planning a rehaul of Splash Mountain into a ride featuring the movie and its princess star Tiana.
“What they asked me to do was create some mood sketches for the ambiance of the ride itself,” she said. “They didn’t want to give me too much … they wanted to see where I’d take the imagery.”
Disney executives liked what they saw in Madhi’s first sketch so much that they asked her to add color to it and then later paint it.
When that process was done, they commissioned three more pieces.
“They said that they really like that I did with the movement and color and how I captured the essence of the city,” Mahdi said, adding that Disney found her through her connection with YAYA New Orleans.
Madhi participated in the nonprofit’s summer programs – which are an educational resource for inner-city youth who want to grow their talents – years ago, and she said she is honored to have her artwork commissioned for such a large project.
As for her students, Madhi said they were elated to find out about the collaboration.
“They are so excited,” she said. “When I first agreed to do this, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but I would give little hints here and there.”
Mahdi said she was shocked but happy when Disney recently promoted her painting and gave more information to the public about the ride redesign, because now she doesn’t have to keep the secret anymore. Disney executives have yet to give a timeline on the ride redesign’s timeline of completion.
While the next few months will be busy with finishing the other three designs, Mahdi said she still has a hard time believing that her work will serve as such an important inspiration for a Disney ride.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” she said. “It’s kind of evolved into something bigger than I imagined. To know that people will go there for years and years and know I was an inspiration behind the visuals … it’s humbling … it’s really, really humbling.”