Cathie Anderson

The force is definitely with fine artist Rob Kaz

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” inspired this Rob Kaz painting called “Asteroid Run.” In it, Han Solo maneuvers his ship, The Millennium Falcon, through an asteroid field to escape from imperial TIE fighters.
“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” inspired this Rob Kaz painting called “Asteroid Run.” In it, Han Solo maneuvers his ship, The Millennium Falcon, through an asteroid field to escape from imperial TIE fighters. Rob Kaz

Artist Rob Kaz has encountered his share of misfortune during his career, but in hindsight, Kaz’s setbacks look more like dumb luck than bad luck.

Even Kaz, 37, acknowledged that his journey as an artist has been stranger than fiction. He didn’t go to art school, studying criminal justice instead at the University of Central Florida. Yet his original oil paintings, which reflect a whimsical animated style, sell for $2,000 and up.

The Orlando-based artist will be signing limited edition prints of his “Star Wars,” Disney and original works from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday in The Vault at the Stage Nine Entertainment Store, 102 K St., in Old Sacramento.

“I wanted to do something with federal law enforcement. Then I graduated and the job prospects just evaporated for me,” said Kaz, who graduated in 2001. “I was in the backyard of my dad’s house, just bawling my eyes out because I’d gotten my latest rejection letter. My Dad was selling his house, and we were all moving out. And, this guy (a potential homebuyer) comes in and says, ‘Who did the art?’ ”

Kaz had recently returned from a trip to Hawaii, and inspired by it, he had used a digital program to draw gorgeous island scenes. His proud dad had hung them up, and they were still hanging when the owner of a small animation studio wandered in to look at the house. He ended up offering Kaz an entry-level job.

“I knew nothing about what I was getting into, and that was a mixed blessing looking back,” Kaz said. “If I had known what I didn’t know, it would have been way too scary, but ultimately what I did to adapt was I would try to be the first one in the office and the last one out.”

He also asked lots of questions, learning to do things he didn’t like as well as those he wished he could do, he said. He moved from one boutique studio to the next, three in all, before the market for independent animation work began to dry up and his last employer closed shop.

It was definitely a setback, but the Orlando resident put together his demo reel and began applying for new jobs. And, he landed a job with video game colossus Electronic Arts, making three times the pay he had at the tiny animation studios.

“Some of the best things that ever happened to me started off with some of the worst things,” Kaz said. “With every closed door is one opening.”

Over three years, Kaz worked on such franchises as Madden football, NCAA football and Tiger Woods golf before Electronic Arts began to struggle financially. He went into the office one day and 300 people were laid off in one stroke.

“I was in a cubicle where everyone around me had been laid off,” Kaz recalled. “I was the only one left in the whole bay of 20 to 25 people. I remember popping my head out of my cubicle, like a gopher, looking around and not seeing anyone.”

He sat alone in that cubicle that day, wondering when the next round of cuts would come and dreading the idea that the HR person might walk up to his desk and say, “C’mon Rob, let’s go have a meeting.” He would have left the office, he said, but there was a terrible thunderstorm that kept him trapped in the building.

“A tree frog landed on my window,” Kaz said, “and I started to draw him.”

That frog would become one of the recurring images in Kaz’s very successful “Friends Along the Way” series. He ended up quitting his job at EA in October 2008, one of the darkest periods of the Great Recession, to go out on his own as a fine artist. He had his first show that month.

“If I had a ton of money, I might have gone into real estate and bought up homes, but as an artist, I invested in resources that were otherwise unattainable,” Kaz said. “Prices were slashed. I got a giclée printer, which is a reproduction printer, for like a quarter of the price that it probably would have gone for normally.”

Eventually, he won representation by James Coleman Studios, one of the pre-eminent art dealers for his style of work, and the gallery’s leaders were able to negotiate licensing deals for him with both Disney and “Star Wars.” A fan of both the Disney animators as well as “Star Wars” conceptual artists such as Ralph McQuarrie and Harrison Ellenshaw, Kaz said he’s living a dream come true.

Troy Carlson, owner of The Vault and Stage Nine, timed Kaz’s visit to be just a couple weeks ahead of the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“Star Wars” fans can come and actually connect with one another, he said, but fans of Disney and Kaz’s original work also will get a kick out of it. Although The Vault will be selling Kaz’s work, Carlson said, no purchase is necessary. Fans can ask Kaz to sign a limited-edition print they already own, or just ask for an autograph.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee