November 6, 2013
“I don’t know what I could do. I could be a Picasso,” says animator and painter Tyrus Wong with a chuckle while discussing his retirement.1 For 103-year-old Wong, who leads a quiet life building kites in Santa Monica, becoming Picasso seems like one of the few things he’s yet to do in his long and varied career. Wong began his artistic endeavors as a landscape painter, taking odd jobs to fund his practice, and then moved into animation and film in his late twenties, and continued to work for major animation studios for over thirty years. But it is only recently that the breadth and impact of his work has gained the attention it deserves. In 2004, the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles exhibited a retrospective of his work curated by the author Lisa See. Since then, his work has been exhibited at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Vincent Price Art Museum, and the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Wong’s career started not long after he arrived at Angel Island Immigration Station from Guangdong province with his father in 1919. After a short stint in Sacramento, Wong and his father moved to the Los Angeles area, where Wong has remained ever since. He began painting and drawing at an early age and benefited greatly from the encouragement of his father, who wanted him to become an artist because he didn’t perceive it as backbreaking work.2 As a child, he was required to practice calligraphy every night before bed. Wong’s father, however, couldn’t afford ink, so Wong painted with water on old newspapers.3
One of Wong’s teachers in junior high noticed the teenager’s interest in art and helped him get a summer scholarship to attend Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design).4 After his father managed to save up the ninety-five dollars for the first semester’s tuition, fifteen-year-old Wong dropped out of his junior high school and began studying art at Otis.5 While still at Otis, Wong received one of his first commissions: He was paid twenty-five dollars to paint an ad for a new brassiere on Hollywood Boulevard. Wong says he had to lie to get the job by pretending to know what a brassiere was.6
And his early success didn’t stop there. In 1932, Wong was included in First International Exhibition of Etchings and Engravings, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago that included works from Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and other artists who now fill art-history textbooks.7 Two years later, Wong’s work was exhibited as part of the Art Institute's International Exhibition of Contemporary Prints: A Century of Progress, which included M.C. Escher, Diego Rivera, and Max Weber.8
Wong graduated from Otis in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. Like many artists—including Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Jackson Pollock—Wong found work with President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). While he was involved with the WPA, he created paintings that were exhibited in public libraries and government buildings.9 Each month, Wong completed two paintings for which he was paid ninety-four dollars.10
In 1935, Wong, along with the artist Benji Okubo, was paid to paint a mural of Chinese mythology’s Eight Immortals and a dragon on the wall of Dragon’s Den, a newly opened Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Walt Disney, among other Hollywood notables, visited the restaurant both to see the murals and dine at a time when Chinese cuisine was not yet ubiquitous. The restaurant’s owner, Eddy See, opened a gallery in the same building as the restaurant and sold the works of Wong and several other Asian American artists.11
Though Wong did not meet Disney at Dragon’s Den in 1935, Wong was feeling the pressure to support his wife and children, so he applied for a job at Walt Disney Studios in 1938. He was initially hired to work on animated shorts, and his first role was as an “in-betweener”—someone who draws the frames between movements of characters. Though not backbreaking labor, the tedious sixteen-dollar-a-week job left Wong exhausted at the end of every day, with his eyes “ready to jump out of their sockets."12 When Wong heard about the upcoming project Bambi, he read the Felix Salten book it would be based upon, Bambi, a Life in the Woods (Simon & Schuster, 1923). As he was primarily a landscape painter at the time, he was thrilled to stumble upon a story that takes place entirely outside. He created several sketches the size of postage stamps and showed them to art director Tom Codrick.
Soon, more of Wong’s sketches found their way to the desk of Walt Disney.13 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had recently been released and Disney wanted something different from its highly detailed scenery for Bambi. Wong’s impressionistic, Sung-dynasty-inspired watercolor landscapes fit the bill, and Disney was impressed. Wong’s subsequent sketches would serve as the foundation for the film’s aesthetic. Though Wong left the Disney Studios before the film was released in 1942, Bambi would eventually be considered among the best American animated films ever released.14 Despite his influence, Wong, who had not once been introduced to Disney, was not credited upon the film’s initial release. (This was corrected in later versions of the film.)15
While working on Bambi, Wong participated in the 1941 five-week Disney animators’ strike, after which morale at the Disney Studios became so low that Wong felt he could no longer work there. A friend and former Disney animator had found work at Warner Bros. and suggested that Wong join him. Wong was soon hired as a production illustrator and sketch artist at Warner Bros., where he continued to work for the next twenty-six years. He developed storyboards and concept sketches for Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and many other live-action films.16 Though he had no experience working on such films, Wong was hired at four times his previous Disney salary.17 Throughout his film career, Wong also worked at Columbia, RKO Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox.18
Wong retired in 1968, nearly half a century ago, and in this time he began making kites, a pastime that has grown into something larger than a mere hobby. Wong recalls that the first kite he built didn’t fly, but after three more attempts he got one off the ground. He’s created so many kites now—including one that’s 200 feet long—that they hang from the ceiling and fill his house.19 Wong’s kite making caught the attention of documentarian Erik Friedl, who featured Wong in his 1990 short Flights of Fancy.
Though Wong’s most well-known work is the background art he did for Bambi, which helped make the film what it is, he has also been an exhibiting artist since before Roosevelt was elected president. He has illustrated books, painted murals, created Hallmark greeting cards that have sold millions, and worked on John Wayne films. (He says that Westerns are his favorite.) In 2004, See said that Wong was the oldest living Chinese American artist; if that wasn’t true then, it more than likely is now, and you can see works from the course of his long life at the Walt Disney Family Museum.
- “Tyrus Wong, Otis, 1935,” video clip, accessed October 27, 2013, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FTC0dpC9BA.
- “Oral History Interview with Tyrus Wong, 1965 Jan. 30,” Archives of American Art, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-tyrus-wong-13010.
- “Tyrus Wong, Otis, 1935.”
- “Tyrus Wong – Artist,” KCET, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/chinatown/from-canton-to-la/tyrus-wong.html.
- “Tyrus Wong Exhibit,” Lisa See, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.lisasee.com/wong3.htm.
- “Oral History Interview.”
- First International Exhibition of Etching and Engraving (The Art Institute of Chicago: Chicago, 1932), http://www.artic.edu/sites/default/files/libraries/pubs/1932/AIC1932IntExhEtchEngrav1st_comb.pdf.
- International Exhibition of Contemporary Prints: A Century of Progress (The Art Institute of Chicago: Chicago, 1934), http://www.artic.edu/sites/default/files/libraries/pubs/1934/AIC1934CoPPrint_comb.pdf.
- “Tyrus Wong,” D23: The Official Disney Fan Club, accessed October 27, 2013, https://d23.com/tyrus-wong/.
- Eric Brightwell, “Happy Hundredth Birthday, Tyrus Wong!” Amoeba Music, October 26, 2010, http://www.amoeba.com/blog/2010/10/eric-s-blog/happy-hundredth-birthday-tyrus-wong-.html.
- “Dragon’s Den,” Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, accessed October 27, 2013, http://apa.si.edu/ongoldmountain/gallery5/gallery5.html.
- “Tyrus Wong – Artist.”
- “Top 10 Animation,” AFI’s 10 Top 10, accessed October 27, 2013, http://www.afi.com/10top10/animation.html.
- “Tyrus Wong, Otis, 1935,” and “Tyrus Wong – Artist.”
- Amid Amidi, “102-Year-Old Tyrus Wong Is the Star of a Major Retrospective in San Francisco,” Cartoon Brew, August 12, 2013, http://www.cartoonbrew.com/events/102-year-old-tyrus-wong-is-the-star-of-a-major-retrospective-in-san-francisco-87214.html.
- “Tyrus Wong – Artist.”
- “Tyrus Wong, Otis, 1935.”