Born 1910, Guangzhou, China
Died 2016, Los Angeles, California
Tyrus Wong had a rags-to-riches life and career. When he was nine years old, his mother, whom he never saw again, sent him to the United States. There he reunited with his father, who worked in Sacramento, and the pair later moved to Los Angeles, where they lived for several years in a community house for single men on Chinatown's Ferguson Alley. Wong's father encouraged his son to practice calligraphy on old newspapers and helped him secure small painting commissions for neighborhood businessmen. A schoolteacher also recognized Wong's talent and recommended him for a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute, where he became the youngest student ever to receive such an award. He eventually earned a full working scholarship, doing odd jobs around campus in lieu of paying tuition.1
After graduating from Otis in 1930, Wong painted advertisements and worked at Chinatown's Dragon's Den restaurant, a popular hangout for artists, until it closed under Depression-era financial duress. Wong found work with the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, painting oils and watercolors for a small monthly salary. As the Depression began to subside, Wong was hired as an artist for Disney, quickly rising to fame after he impressed Walt Disney with his preliminary pastel sketches for the film Bambi. He subsequently designed all of the backgrounds for the film, an immense creative undertaking for which he was honored with the title "Disney Legend" in 2001. In the aftermath of an animators' strike, Wong was forced to leave Disney before the release of Bambi in 1942, moving on to Warner Bros. (with intermittent work at Republic Studios), where he painted and sketched concept art for live-action classics such as Rebel Without a Cause, Around the World in 80 Days, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Wild Bunch. He retired in 1968.
In addition to working in Hollywood, Wong had a lively presence in Los Angeles galleries and museums and participated in several cooperative ventures, including Eleven Associated, a gallery active in the early 1950s that showed primarily African American work. Often hailed for his watercolors and ceramics, Wong was influenced in part by his Otis mentor Stanton Macdonald-Wright, who encouraged his student's combination of traditional Chinese brushwork, taken from both calligraphy and landscape painting, and natural subjects in movement. Wong demonstrated these techniques in a short film made by Eliot O'Hara in 1954 for the Encyclopedia Britannica. He also successfully translated his fine art practice into best-selling Christmas card designs as well as dinnerware for Winfield Pottery that was subsequently mass-marketed in department stores across the United States.
Wong's life is the subject of a feature-length documentary, directed by Pamela Tom, titled Tyrus (2015). The film also brings to light the larger context of Chinese and Japanese artists working in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, a topic first explored in depth by writer and independent curator Lisa See, whose 1995 book On Gold Mountain details many of Wong's exploits as a young artist in Chinatown.2
Wong's work of the last few decades consists of intricately fashioned kites in the forms of dragons, birds, and myriad other animals. Having been an artist for the better part of a century, he demonstrated an inexhaustible commitment to creative expression.
Tyrus Wong: A Retrospective, Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles, 2003–4.
Mid-Century Mandarin: The Clay Canvases of Tyrus Wong, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, 2004.
Kinetic Creatures: The Art Kites of Tyrus Wong, Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, 2004.
The Art of the Motion Picture Illustrator: William B. Major, Harold Michelson, and Tyrus Wong, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, 2007.
"Art of the Pacific." Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1953.
Loper, Mary Lou. "Cream of Art Crop." Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1962.
Miller, Arthur. "Wilshire Exhibit Displays 58 Watercolor Pictures." Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1941.
Noriyuki, Duane. "The Sky's No Limit." Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2004.
Rense, Rip. "Kite Man Preserves Father's Hobby." Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1989, Westside sec.
See, Lisa. "Tyrus Wong: A Retrospective." Exh. brochure. Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles, 2003.
Wong, Tyrus, interview by Betty Hoag, Los Angeles, January 30, 1965. Oral history interview for the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts project. Transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Tyrus Wong Wikipedia page.
Betty Lochrie Hoag, oral history interview with Tyrus Wong, January 30, 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
"Tyrus Wong, Otis, 1935" video, Otis Legacy Project: Interviews of Distinguished Otis Alumni, November 2007.
Michael Ordoña, "Artist Tyrus Wong's Legacy Soars Over Generations," SFGate, August 8, 2013.
"Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong," Walt Disney Family Museum exhibition page, 2014.
Joann Stevens, "How Disney's 1942 Film Bambi Came to be Influenced by the Lush Landscapes of the Sung Dynasty," Smithsonian.com, January 23, 2014.
Elizabeth Yuan, "From 'Bambi' to Kites, His Work Flies High," Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2015.
Hansi Lo Wang, "The Chinese 'Paper Son' Who Inspired the Look of Disney's 'Bambi,'" KCRW, March 28, 2015.
Ben Shapiro, "Meet the 104-Year-Old Immigrant Artist, a 'Disney Legend,' Whose Art Inspired 'Bambi,'" Observer, April 22, 2015.
Tyrus. Documentary film. Directed by Pamela Tom, 2015.
Margalit Fox, "Tyrus Wong, 'Bambi' Artist Thwarted by Racial Bias, Dies at 106," New York Times obituary, December 30, 2016.
Elaine Woo, "Tyrus Wong, Artist Whose Paintings Inspired Disney's 'Bambi' and Other Films, Dies at 106," Los Angeles Times obituary, December 31, 2016.
Tyrus Wong, interview by Betty Hoag, Los Angeles, January 30, 1965, transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, n.p.
Lisa See, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
Tyrus Wong, interview by Betty Hoag, Los Angeles, January 30, 1965, transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, n.p.See all footnotes