Tyrus Wong is a Chinese-American artist who’s most best-known work was as the background artist largely responsible for the look of Walt Disney‘s 1942 film Bambi. He’s also worked as a landscape painter, muralist, ceramicist, lithographer, designer and kitemaker. Some of his well known paintings include Self Portrait, Fire, Reclining Nude, East and West. At 100 years old today and one of the earliest successful Chinese-American artists, he is a living legend.
Tyrus was born 黃齊耀 on 25 October 1910 in Taishan (台 山), China. When he was nine, he and his father moved to Sacramento, leaving behind his mother and sister, never to see them again. Father and son subsequently moved to Southern California where Wong attended Pasadena‘s Benjamin Franklin Junior High. It was there that his teachers noted his artistic ability and, after receiving a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute, he left junior high.
He graduated from Otis in 1930. Wong’s first job was painting a brassiere ad that would appear on a large building on Hollywood Boulevard… although Wong reportedly didn’t know what a bra was and mistakenly thought the that it was some sort of breast warmer.
Wong ran with other Asian-American artists Benji Okubo and Hideo Date, and worked at Chinatown‘s fashionable Dragon Den. He was also paid $94 a month for oils and watercolors as part of the Federal Arts Project, a part of the WPA. His style was greatly influenced by his friend, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, who called his approach “synchrony” (and currently has work being exhibited at San Marino‘s Huntington Library).
In 1938, he married Ruth Ng Kim Wong (born 黃伍梅珍) and they went on to give birth to three daughters, Kim (born 1938), Tai-ling (born 1941), and Kay (born 1946). The year of his marriage, Wong began working in Hollywood at Disney, where he was an “in-betweener” in 1938, doing work he found tedious.
More rewardingly, he was largely responsible for inspiring the lush, impressionistic backgrounds of Bambi. After the animator’s strike of 1941, Wong left Disney… as did Alfred Abranz, Basil Davidovich, Bernie Wolf, Bill Meléndez, Bill Tytla, Bob Wickersham, Claude Smith, Cornett Wood, David Hilberman, Ed Love, Emery Hawkins, Frank Tashlin, Grant Simmons, Howard Swift, Jack Bradbury, John Hubley, Kenneth Muse, Maurice Noble, Preston Blair, Ray Patterson, T. Hee, Ted Bonnicksen, Virgil Partch, Volus Jones, Walt Kelly, Walter Clinton, William Hurtz, Zack Schwartz and others. The same year, Wong painted the Chinatown mural Chinese Celestial Dragon, which was restored by Fu Ding Cheng in 1984. Remarkably, Bambi lost money on its initial release (although it directly inspired the look of Japanese anime).
Wong next worked as a film production illustrator at Warner Bros. from 1942 till 1968. He painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of live-action films, including Rebel Without A Cause, Calamity Jane, Harper, The Wild Bunch, Sands of Iwo Jima, Auntie Mame, April in Paris and PT 109. He was also loaned out to Republic Pictures where he worked on many westerns.
Throughout his years at the studios, Tyrus continued to paint and exhibit. In 1965, he was featured in a short film demonstrating “Oriental brushwork techniques,” produced by artist Eliot O’Hara for exhibition at grade schools and UCLA. His commercial work included designing greeting cards for Hallmark, illustrating magazine covers and children’s books, and painting calligraphic style compositions on Winfield ceramic ware. After retiring in 1968, he began making kites, which he regularly flew on the Santa Monica pier for the next thirty years.
In 2001, Wong was given a Historymakers Award by the Chinese American Museum. In 2004, his work was exhibited there under the name, Tyrus Wong – A Retrospective. Wong currently lives in Sunland, California.
Follow this link to see pictures from his birthday, on which he went to the beach and flew kites!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam.
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California,diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College.
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