Margalit Fox reports in the New York Times that the artist Tyrus Wong, best known for his watercolors and pastels of nature which provided the inspiration and working template for Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942), has died. Credited as a background artist, his influence on the film is legendary in the animation industry. He worked as a Hollywood studio artist, painter, printmaker, calligrapher, and greeting-card illustrator, and in later years he also made elaborate kites.
Born as Wong Gen Yeo in 1910 in a farming village in Guangdong province, he and his father immigrated to the United States in 1920 and traveled under false identities to try to skirt the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which curtailed the number of Chinese people allowed to enter the country. Landing at Angel Island Immigration Station at San Francisco Bay, he was detained for a month before being admitted into the US. Wong’s father eventually moved to Los Angeles to look for work, and he joined him a few years later. When he was in junior high, a teacher arranged for a summer scholarship to what is now the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. In the fall, he stayed on as Otis’s youngest student and studied painting for at least five years while also working as a janitor there. After graduating in the 1930s, he became an artist for the Works Progress Administration and made paintings for libraries and other public spaces. In 1932 and 1934, his work was included in group exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago that also featured Picasso, Matisse, and Paul Klee.
He founded the Oriental Artists’ Group of Los Angeles with friends, including the Japanese-American artists Benji Okubo, Hideo Date, and Gilbert Leung. They organized exhibitions of members’ work at LACMA and the San Francisco Museum of Art, but the group was eventually broken up during World War II, as several members including Okubo went into internment camps. Joining Disney in 1938 as an in-between animator, he produced the thousands of drawings that round out animation sequences between the key gestures laid out by character animators. When Bambi was being adapted by Disney, Wong’s drawings were examined by Walt Disney, who “went crazy over them,” according to animation historian John Canemaker in his book Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists (1996). “He said, ‘I love this indefinite quality, the mysterious quality of the forest.’” Inspired by the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty, Wong’s aesthetic became the foundation for the look of the landmark film.
Though he spent two years working on illustrations for Bambi, after an employees’ strike in 1941, which he did not join, he was fired from the studio. He joined Warner Brothers in 1942, though he was occasionally lent out to other studios, and retired in 1968. He was involved with such live-action films as The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and The Wild Bunch (1969).
In 2001, in formal recognition of his influence, Wong was named a Disney Legend. The honor—previous recipients include Fred MacMurray, Julie Andrews, and Annette Funicello—is bestowed by the Walt Disney Company for outstanding contributions. In 2003, a retrospective of his work was the inaugural exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. In 2013 and 2014, Wong was the subject of the retrospective “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky” at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco; the show traveled in 2015 to the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. Wong was also the subject of the award-winning documentary Tyrus, directed by Pamela Tom, which premiered in 2015.