“I was lucky to have one teacher in high school — you have one, maybe two teachers that break through and just make you feel like, ‘You’re okay. You’re maybe different. You don’t follow the path that everybody else follows.’ But they try to nurture you,” Burton recalls. “They support you in your path that’s not exactly the same as everybody else, because everybody is different.”
Who was that person for him …?
“Her name was Mrs. Adams,” Burton says. “She nurtured you but also kind of said you were okay, at that time when people who did art were deemed as weird. You see it in a John Hughes movie: ‘Oh, you’re in the art class. You’re a weirdo. You’ve got dark thoughts. You wear strange clothes,’ and whatever, or you’re slightly anti-social, or not even anti-social, just introverted, quiet, not the life of the party.”
Doris Adams was in her early-50s when she met the young filmmaker, who tended to sit quietly in the back of her art class, where she encouraged her students to get up and explore the different materials in her closet to make their creations.
As a boy, Burton was more of a wallflower than what people might consider a weirdo, she recalls. “He did not have long bushy hair,” says the 91-year-old, now living in a retirement home in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “He looked like any other kid. He didn’t dress in any strange way or act in any strange way.”
A student like that might be easy to forget, especially nearly four decades later. “Oh, I have vivid, vivid remembrances of him,” Adams says. “He was very quiet, but he drew the most wonderful, fanciful figures you could ever imagine. Instead of getting in trouble, he would just take his pen and be lost in his drawings.”
Adams had a film camera in her classroom and gave Burton his first lesson in stop-motion animation, where he collaborated with some other kids in the class on a short film starring none other than Gumby. But mostly, he just drew, drew, drew.
“What I remember most about him was the kind of art he would draw in his spare time. When he had finished the assignment, his hand would still be going. His hand was never still with a pencil in it.” Creatures, skewed views of people, and comical figures. Adams says they were the kind of things few people could even imagine. “But he could imagine them and put them on paper. Every time I’d pass his desk, I’d ask him, ‘What are you doing now?’”
Coming from others, that might have sounded like a judgment, but Adams was one of the few who started telling a teenage Tim Burton that his sense of creativity might make a good job someday. “I said, ‘These are just great, you keep it up and don’t ever stop,’” she said.
Adams has kept up with all his movies over the years, like a proud creative parent. They were out of touch for decades, but when the traveling exhibit of Burton’s work came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year, Adams attended the opening gala with her family and approached him anonymously, wearing a handmade spiral mask.
She supplied some of her own family photos of that reunion, (pictured at left and right.) “That was a real joy to see her,” Burton recalls with a laugh. “She surprised me, which was amazing. It was really nice to see her after all those years.”For Burton, hearing support from an adult, instead of just frustration or criticism, was a gasp of air at a time when he felt a kind of social suffocation. “It was great because I think as a teacher, it’s something that you would feel good about,” he said. “[She] should feel good about it, because she had a really good effect on me.”
Adams does. “I just wanted to make sure that he knew I thought he should go into art, and it would be a great loss if he didn’t.”
Burton’s mother and father never really got their son in the same way, though he is hardly the only child in America who had that experience.
As he looks back at his parents, all these years later, Burton finds he’s starting to understand them a little better, though.