Step into Tim Decker’s Wauwatosa home and you instantly get how much animation’s cheery colors and grin-inducing characters mean to the artist and his life.
The candy-hued walls are covered with Decker’s own work from two-plus decades in high-profile animation — a 6 ft. grinning giraffe, a sketch of Marge Simpson, another of one of The Chipmunks brothers — plus the work of his mentors as that career took shape.
It’s an exuberance Decker has embraced since early childhood, when he applied the brightest shades to every object he drew.
“All of my teachers said, ‘If Timmy wasn’t drawing cartoons, he’d be an A student,’” Decker recalls with a chuckle. “But it was something inside me that had to come out.”
Decker’s love for art intensified when he was a preteen. Both of his sisters divorced and Decker frequently babysat their children. To pass the time, he invented a game called “Scribble Time with Uncle Tim.” He demonstrates, letting me cut loose with a Sharpie and then transforming the hodgepodge into a charmingly goofy dog in 60 seconds flat. “We’d do this all day, all night,” Decker recalls. “It really helped me as an artist, because I was open to more drawing — and I had to come up with something on the spot.”
Shortly after Decker graduated from high school, he and his parents moved from Illinois to Colorado. With his son bent on attending art school, Decker’s dad took him Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design where the boy met the school’s founder, Philip J. Steele. Though Steele was a devotee of a classical, academic method of painting and drawing — little room for animation there — he immediately recognized his new student’s talent and spark.
“He was a wonderful man,” Decker recalls. “He was a great artist — and he told me, ‘You’re an artist, kid! You got style. You got a style, and that doesn’t come very often. Not too many kids have style.’”
His instructors didn’t share the opinion. “I’d be in my class and I’d go, ‘I’ve got style!’ and [the instructors were] like, ‘Shut up, freshman! If I see another cartoon out of you, you’re going to be failing,’” Decker laughs. “And I’m like, ‘Don’t talk like that — Phil says I have style.’”
Decker also had a penchant for the freedoms and vices of college life, quickly running out of money and the will to adhere to the rigors of a scholastic schedule. Faced with a workaday existence, he sent an inquiry letter to American Animation Institute in Hollywood, which seemed a closer step toward his dream career at Disney. And then the circus came to town. Literally.
A Ringling Bros. fan from childhood, Decker trooped down to audition for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, where he caught the eye of Lou Jacobs, master clown at the time. A few weeks later, a pair of letters arrived. Decker had been accepted into both endeavors. He decided to head for Hollywood.
By then, the animation scene had stalled, though students at California Institute of the Arts were still finding work. Decker couldn’t afford yet another change of venue, so he made a surprising next move for a self-described “wild art student.” He joined the Air Force.
The longhaired recruit — with a tattered portfolio under his arm and hopes of earning his way back into art school as an army illustrator — wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. He quickly earned the nickname “Peckerhead” from his unamused drill sergeant, along with a reputation for not backing down from an insult or a fight. “Peckerhead” morphed into “Woodpecker” and, with that, the demand that Decker would warble the cadence on miles-long marches.
His comically off-color lyrics earned his fellow airmen’s respect — and to his surprise, the drill instructor’s too. Life got easier.
“I was stationed at White Sands Missile Range at Holloman Air Force Base for four years and four months, drawing propaganda cartoons that got dropped over Afghanistan and Iraq,” Decker recalls. “Stuff like, ‘Your voice will set you free.’ ‘One voice, one vote.’ Dereliction of duty cartoons. A lot of flight patterns for F15s.”
Meanwhile, he grew up and got sober, and when his stint ended, he returned to Rocky Mountain to make things right with Steele and the school. He graduated and then headed for Cal Arts, where a Who’s Who in the animation community awaited.
“That experience was amazing, because when I first got there, one of the first guys I met was Craig Kellman, and Craig is a superstar cartoonist. He did the characters for ‘Madagascar,’” Decker recalls. “And then Genndy Tartakovsky who did ‘Dexter’s Lab.’ And then Craig McCracken, who did ‘The Powerpuff Girls.’ And Peter Shin, who was the animation supervisor for ‘Family Guy.’ Jason Katz and Pete Docter from Pixar. Mike Mitchell, who did ‘Trolls.’ I mean, suddenly I’m amongst future Gods of animation.”
He learned from some icons too, including Fred Crippen (“Roger Ramjet”), Jules Engel (“Popeye the Sailor”), Ernie Pintoff (1963’s Oscar-winning “The Critic”) and Corney Cole.
“They were like the ‘modern artists’ of animation,” Decker says fondly. “They were the beatniks of animation, basically.”
In his sophomore year, Decker landed an internship on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” His producer decided he was a better fit for the Alvin and Chipmunks Television special, “Five Decades of Rock and Roll with the Chipmunks.”
And in the mid ’90s, Decker took on perhaps his most high-profile venture, working on seasons four through six of “The Simpsons.” At first, he admits, “We really didn’t know what to think of it, because it was primetime, which was unheard of.” As the show began its march to the pop culture phenomenon it is today, “we knew we were onto something,” Decker says. “Because from that [the animated series] ‘The Critic’ came. ‘Duckman’ came. And then ‘Family Guy.’”
Working at Knowledge Adventure on Learning Software led Decker to begin offered the position of Animation Director at Disney Interactive, where Decker impressed Roy Disney Jr., Michael Eisner and Peter Schneider with his ability to seamlessly translate the company’s beloved movies into the burgeoning video game market.
“The thing I found with those guys is that you have to stay current … today,” Decker recalls. “They never let anything ruffle their feathers. They were just really great guys. They just showed you how to lead by just not overreacting.”
But even decades into his art form, Decker wasn’t too entrenched to be laid off. With a wife and new baby boy to support, he realized that California was a bit too fickle for a family man.
“I had a lot of good times, and I was very fortunate in the sense that the cards fell the right way,” Decker says. “All those friends are still friends of mine. But Hollywood wasn’t the place that I wanted to raise my son, Evan.”
Decker’s then-wife was from Milwaukee, so the pair returned to Cream City, where Decker again struggled to find his place. A freelance project with Chicago’s Utopia entertainment gave him harrowing lessons in international labor practices. Galleries weren’t interested in showing his work.
Several years into teaching at UWM, James MacDonald contacted Decker to work alongside Brian Mennenoh to create the Animation program at Milwaukee Area Technical college. Decker worked diligently to create the articulation between UWM and MATC to create a seamless transfer to UWM so Decker’s MATC students could continue studying animation and attain their Bachelors of Arts degree.
In addition to animation skills, Decker is proud that his lessons also include the value of self-confidence and unfailing perseverance in the cutthroat animation world.
“I feel like these are my people,” Decker says. “These kids need to hear from somebody that it wasn’t an easy road. I tell my students, ‘I went through alcohol addiction, drug addiction, addiction to cigarettes. If I can fight through this stuff and I can make things happen, you can make things happen.’
“I encourage them to explore themselves, to explore drawing, to explore what they can do. I really think that if they tap into their creativity, and they try, and they’re open to learning new things, they’ll go somewhere. But you have to be out there and say, ‘Hey, I’m the best thing out here. I’m the best thing you’re looking for. I can do this. We can do this. You want me; I know you do. I draw cartoons, and I know you want them.’”
In 2016, following an alleyway attack on one of his students, Decker and fellow artist
Stacey Williams-Ng helped repurpose the graffiti-filled spot into Black Cat Alley, Milwaukee’s largest outdoor art installation. And he continues to preach the importance of art to as many people as he can.
“The arts make the difference,” Decker exclaims. “The arts are important. The arts are a part of everybody. Dance is important. Music is important. Painting art in-house is important. Design is important. A lot of wonderful inventions come from design. And cartoons are important because they let you be a kid for five seconds.”
When we spoke, Decker was prepping a pair of art shows in Chicago and building a burgeoning business translating his colorful works into imaginative (and nicely priced) wearables, accessories and home décor on the online artists’ marketplace Redbubble.
“I try to paint happy stuff,” Decker shrugs. “I try to make good things, because when people look at my artwork, I want a reaction, and I want to see a smile. If I get a smile from you when you look at my artwork, I’ve succeeded. I’ve made you warm up. I made you feel good.”
It’s a mantra he hopes to infuse into his students, current and former, relishing when a happy young voice calls his name on the street.
“I love my students. I am absolutely there for them and I just look forward to seeing what they do,” Decker beams. “When I see them, I guess you can relate it to having another kid. I’ll hear, ‘Tim!’ or ‘Decker!’ and I turn around, and it’s one of my students. They come up and hug me, and say, ‘Hey, I love you!’ You can’t beat that!”