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 Diana Billings Art Blog


Updated: Jul 12, 2022

Today I want to write about an artist whose art work most of us have seen and don’t even know. Tyrus Wong born in China on October 25, 1010 and passed away on December 30th, 2016 in California. Tyrus was 106 years old when he passed, leaving behind a artistic path most of us have never known about.

Tyrus was a painter, animator, calligrapher, muralist, ceramicist, lithographer, set designer, storyboard artist and kite maker. He worked for Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz Productions, Hanna Barbara, Winfield China and other employers. Tyrus worked where ever he need to support his family.

Tyrus Wong arrived along with his father in the United States on December 30, 1919, leaving his sister and mother in China, never to see them again. At only nine years old he was separated from his father for a month. while being held at Angel Island Immigration Centre because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Then he finally rejoined his father under assumed identities called the”paper sons” of Chinese American sponsors. He and his father settled in Sacramento. In 1946 after the repeal of the Exclusion Act he gained his citizenship.

A young Tyrus showed artistic ability early on. His father encouraged him to write calligraphy daily. Tyrus’ teachers at school recognized his artistic abilities and encouraged him. In junior high school he received a scholarship from Otis College of Art and Design. This made Tyrus decide to leave school and go to the Otis College full time, while there working as a janitor to help support his family. He graduated in 1930 and found work in Hollywood.

Image part of a Greeting Card for Hallmark

During his working life Tyrus was a greeting card designer for Hallmark, worked as a film production illustrator for Warner Brothers, and as set designer and storyboard artist for movies and inspirational sketches at Disney. At Disney, the executives were looking for a different look of animation for a new movie. This is when they found Tyrus - his unique watercolour style, influenced by his Chinese heritage, was perfect for Bambi! The movie Bambi is heavily influenced by his art. The washed watercolour backgrounds and scenery are all Tyrus Wong work. Bambi has only recently been recognized as one of his greatest artistic achievements. As children, most of us have seen Bambi. Now that you know some history of the artist involved, maybe you will want to watch it again. Tyrus was fired from Disney along with other staff shortly after the making of Bambi in 1942, due to the writers strike. At this time he moved on to work at Warner Bothers, where he remained for 26 years. There is a score of Warner Brothers films he worked on including “Rebel Without A Cause”,1955 and “the Wild Bunch”,1969. When he retired he became a maker of beautifully creative kites in a traditional Chinese style.

Image of part of a Storyboard. Image of Bambi movie illustration

Most of the recognition Tyrus received was late in life. He had his first solo show in 2004 of the patterned china dish-ware he made for Winfield China during the 1940’s and 1950’s in Los Angeles.

There was a show in October to December of 2004 called “Tyrus Wong: A Retrospective” in Los Angeles.

In 2007 “The Art of Motion Pictures”, a showing of illustrations from movies, which included the work of Wong along with two other artists, was presented in Beverly Hills.

Tyrus Wong helped form the artist collective “Eleven Associated Artists”, which went on to become “Art West Association” this was disbanded after a short period of time. Tyrus was featured in the exhibition representing artists from the collective “Now Dig This: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980”. The event exhibited at the Hammer Museum in October 2011 to January 2012.

Tyrus Wong and one of his kites

In January 2012 to May 2012 Tyrus’ work was featured in the “Round the Clock: Chinese American Artist Working in Los Angeles” exhibition.

From August of 2013 to February 2014, at The Walt Disney Family Museum San Fransisco was a retrospective exhibit called “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong”. At the time a hardcover book was released about the show and was available for purchase. This show was then moved to Manhattan in 2015 at the Museum of Chinese in America.

A film was made during the process of this retrospective, called “Tyrus”, which won serval film awards. The film, which I saw recently, was aired on PBS. It is a film worth seeing, so keep an eye on PBS. Seeing this film prompted me into writing this blog about Tyrus Wong. I was fascinated with his life and skill. His achievements most certainly deserve recognition. I counted twelve Youtube videos about or interviews with him. I have only watched a few. Two of the things I like the most are his kites, (so cool) and the ceramics he made in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Tyrus was an incredible artist and to think if he had never immigrated to the California we would not have the “Bambi”movie most of us grew up with.

Enjoy, Diana

Movie: “Tyrus” by Director: Pamela Tom

Released November7, 2015

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