Friday, January 6, 2017

The Late Great Tyrus Wong

Landscape painter, muralist, lithographer, designer, and kite-maker Tyrus Wong, who shaped the visual style of the Walt Disney classic Bambi (1942) and worked on many other films, died on December 30 2016 at the age of 106.

Tyrus Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo in Taishan, Guangdong Province, China on October 25 1910. He showed a talent for drawing while very young, something which his father encouraged. In 1920 he and his father immigrated to the United States. They left behind his mother and sister. Sadly Wong Gen Yeo would never see his mother again. To get around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted immigration from China, Wong Gen Yeo and his father travelled under assumed identities. His father posed as a merchant called  Look Get, while Wong Gen Yeo travelled as Look Tai Yow. A schoolteacher would later Anglicise Tai Kow as "Tyrus".

Young Tyrus Wong's father taught him calligraphy, using newspapers and water as they could not afford ink and paper. It was after a teacher in junior high noticed Tyrus Wong's talent in art that he got a scholarship to attend the Otis College of Art and Design during the summer. Young Tyrus Wong did not want to return to junior high and as a result his father managed to get together enough money to pay for the tuition at the Otis College of Art and Design, then a rather steep $90. In all Tyrus Wong attended the Otis College of Art and Design for five years, much of which time he worked as the school janitor.

After graduating from the Otis College of Art and Design, Tyrus Wong worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration. He created artwork for such public buildings as libraries. In 1938 he was hired by Walt Disney Productions as an inbetweener, the artists responsible for providing the key frames in animation to give the illusion of movement. After Walt Disney Productions experienced difficulties on Bambi with the various forest creatures blending in with the backgrounds, it was Tyrus Wong's experience as a landscape painter that ultimately solved the problem. He provided a series of backgrounds that would ultimately influence the entire look of the film. Although only credited for "backgrounds" in the credits of Bambi, he was in fact providing inspiration for the whole film. Quite simply, he served as its unofficial art designer.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the 1941 Disney animators strike, Tyrus Wong was fired from Disney, even though he had chosen not to strike. In 1942 Mr. Wong was hired by Warner Bros. He worked there until he retired in 1968. Over the years he worked on such films as The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Green Berets (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969).  He also designed greeting cards for Hallmark and provided designs for dinnerware. He painted throughout his life. His work was displayed in 1932 and 1934 in show at the Art Institute of Chicago. His work would later be exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Walt Disney Family Museum, the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City, and elsewhere. Following his retirement from the film industry in 1968, he became well known as a maker of colourful an complex kites.

There can be no doubt that Tyrone Wong was a very talented artist. In fact, it seems very likely that Bambi would not look nearly as good without him. His landscapes were lush, moody, atmospheric, and complex. While he spent most of his lifetime virtually unknown (and he still isn't well known to the general public), his talent was such that he should have attained fame far sooner in his lifetime. Few artists were as talented as he was.

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