Who was Tyrus Wong? The life and achievements of Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-born American painter, animator, calligrapher, muralist, ceramist, lithographer and creator of comets.
Tyrus Wong (October 25, 1910 – December 30, 2016) was an American artist born in China. He was a painter, animator, calligrapher, muralist, ceramist, lithographer and creator of comets, as well as scenographer and graphic sketcher. As one of the most influential and celebrated Asian-American artists of the 20th century, Wong was also an illustrator of film production, working for Disney and Warner Brothers. He was a muralist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), as well as a greeting card artist for Hallmark cards. In particular, he was the lead illustrator of the Disney film Bambi in 1942, inspired by the art of the Song dynasty. He also worked in the art department of many films, either as a set designer or screenwriter, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Music Man (1962), The Great Race (1962), PT 109 (1963), The Green Berets (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969), among others.
Wong retired from the film industry in the late 1960s, but continued his work as an artist, spending most of his time designing kites. He also continued painting, drawing and designing ceramics well into his 90s. It was the theme of the 2015 documentary film, Tyrus, by filmmaker Pamela Tom. Wong died on December 30, 2016, at the age of 106 years.
Wong was born as Wong Gen Yeo on October 25, 1910 in Taishan, Guangdong, China. In 1920, when he was nine years old, Wong and his father emigrated to the United States, and never again came into contact with his mother and sister. Wong was initially held at the Angel Island Immigration Station, due to the China Exclusion Act. There he separated from his father while waiting to be questioned about his identity. Because the majority of Chinese immigration was prohibited by the China Exclusion Act, Wong and his father had to emigrate illegally under identities assumed to be “paper children” of US-originating Chinese sponsors. After his release from Angel Island, he and his father moved initially to Sacramento. His father later moved with the family to Los Angeles.
While attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, Wong’s teachers noted his artistic ability and received a summer scholarship at the Otis Art Institute. Wong decided to leave high school to get a full-time scholarship at Otis. Wong’s father survived on a more modest income, and Wong worked as a janitor at Otis. He walked for miles to attend classes. He graduated from Otis in 1930 and started working in Hollywood.
Wong’s career varied from working as a Hallmark greeting card designer, to being an illustrator of the Warner Bros. film production (1942-1968), which included scenography and storyboard designs for several films, and an inspiring cartoonist ( 1938-1941) for Disney.
It was his exuberant cakes that inspired Bambi (1942), where he was the main artist of the project. His background paintings for Bambi are inspired by the classical Chinese paintings of the Song dynasty. Although he was recognized as one of several background illustrators, his overall contribution to the film was largely unknown for several decades.
Shortly after finishing with Bambi, Wong was dismissed from Disney studios as a result of the strike by Disney animators. After leaving Disney, Wong worked at Warner Brothers Studios for 26 years as a production illustrator.
Later, he designed popular greeting cards for Hallmark cards. After retiring from film work in 1968, Wong changed his skills to make colorful kites (usually animals such as pandas, goldfish or centipedes). He spent his Saturdays flying his creations on the beach north of the Santa Monica pier.
Some of his known paintings include Self-Portrait (late 1920s), Fire (1939), Reclining Nude (1940s), East (1984) and West (1984). He told an interviewer that he was a “lucky artist.” Wong appeared in Mark Wexler’s 2009 documentary, How to Live Forever, where he talked about his daily lifestyle and opinion on mortality, and in the documentary Tyrus by Pamela Tom 2015.
In 2001, the Chinese American Museum awarded Wong a prize to the creators of history (arts) and was admitted as a Disney legend. In 2015, the San Diego Asian Film Festival honored him with lifetime achievement.
The first individual exhibition of Wong’s work of art, “Mandarin of the mid-century: the clay canvases of Tyrus Wong”, curated by Bill Stern, was organized by the California Museum of Design. He focused on his paintings on tableware for Winfield China in Pasadena, California, in the 1940s and 50s, and performed at CAFAM in Los Angeles, from July 14 to October 31, 2004.
The Tyrus Wong: a retrospective exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, California, showed his work in October-December 2004. According to the museum:
This exhibition showed the works of Tyrus Wong, who at the age of 93 years, is one of the oldest and most influential American Chinese artists in the United States. In his long and pioneering career as a local artist, Wong is an experienced painter, muralist, ceramist, lithographer, designer and kite maker. The exhibition also featured Wong’s imaginative comets, which he has been building and flying for the past 30 years. Of the public and private collections, several of the pieces chosen for this exhibition have not been publicly shown since the 1930s.
In 2007, Wong was one of three prominent illustrators in The Art of Film Illustrator: William B. Major, Harold Michelson and Tyrus Wong, an exhibition in the Grand Hall Gallery of the Beverly Hills Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Wong’s work was featured in “Now Dig This !: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980”, an exhibition at the Hammer Museum, October 2011 – January 2012.
His work was also included in the Round the Clock exhibition: Chinese American Artists, which works in Los Angeles, at the Vincent Price Museum of East Los Angeles College, from January to May 2012.
From August 2013 to February 2014, Wong’s work was exhibited at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California, in a career retrospective entitled Water on Paper, Sky Painting: The Art of Tyrus Wong. The Walt Disney Family Foundation published a hardback book along with the exhibit.
In 2015, Wong appeared in a retrospective of eight decades of career, Water to paper, Paint to Sky: The art of Tyrus Wong, in the Museum of the Chinese in the United States, in Manhattan, New York.
Wong met Ruth Ng Kim (伍梅珍), a second-generation American from a farming family in Bakersfield, California, at Dragon’s Den Restaurant in Los Angeles Chinatown, California, where she was a waitress. They were married on June 27, 1937 in Bakersfield, CA.
She worked as a secretary of Y.C. Hong, the first Chinese-American immigration lawyer, and then became a housewife after the birth of their children. The couple had three daughters: Kay (born 1938), Tai-Ling (born 1943) and Kim (born 1949) and two grandchildren, Kevin Fong and Jason Fong. Wong’s wife, Ruth Kim Wong, died on January 12, 1995. She was 85 years old. Wong died on December 30, 2016, at the age of 106 years.
In 2015, filmmaker Pamela Tom wrote and directed a film about the life of Tyrus Wong, titled Tyrus. The film was produced by Gwen Wynne, Tamara Khalaf and Tom Pamela. The film ended up winning public awards at the 2016 Asian-American Film Festival in Boston, as well as at the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival 2015. The film had its national broadcast on the PBS American Masters on September 8, 2017.
Bambi (1942) – Animation Department. Animation backgrounds.
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) – 1. Art Department. Art direction assistant 2. Miscellaneous equipment. Technical advisor
How to live forever (2009) – Documentary about the secrets of long life. The same.
When the world breaks (2010) – Documentary. The same.
Angel Island profiles: Tyrus Wong (2011) – Documentary about him at 100 years old.
Tyrus (2015) – Documentary about himself.