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"Water to Paper, Paper to Sky - The Art of Tyrus Wong" exhibit opens at the Walt Disney Family Museum

"Water to Paper, Paper to Sky - The Art of Tyrus Wong" exhibit opens at the Walt Disney Family Museum

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On the subject of Walt Disney, a somewhat common thread is how well he placed people where their talents could do the best for a particular project. Plenty of good tales over the years of how people realized what they were best at after Walt "set them on the path". In one case, the person in question never met Walt Disney. Yet his work at the Studio on a particular project has influenced generations of artists. And his time inside the gates was surprisingly short.

Walt Disney Family Museum Director of Collections Michael Labrie, curator of the
exhibition (left) and Tyrus Wong (right) enjoy an amusing tale during the
press preview. Photo by Roger Colton

This artist? Tyrus Wong. The project was "Bambi " and his mark left upon the film is unquestionably one of the most legendary in the history of the company. The Walt Disney Family Museum recently opened a new exhibition, "Water to Paper, Paper to Sky - The Art of Tyrus Wong." During a preview event, I could not help but consider the irony of the location of the exhibit in San Francisco. The story began in 1919, short miles away across the Bay from the Presidio, as Wong and his father arrived from China at the Angel Island Immigration Station.

San Francisco's famed Golden Gate as seen from China Beach. Photo by Roger Colton

During the introduction of the exhibit, Wong told of his appreciation to his father. Leaving his mother and sister behind in China, they came to California. His father had been here before as a merchant and was free to travel. Tyrus as a new immigrant was not, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He had to wait. Finally, he was able to leave and joined his father in Sacramento. They traveled to Los Angeles, where his father operated a rooming house for Chinese farmers.

A young Tyrus Wong, before immigration to the United States.
Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Family
Museum and Tyrus Wong

It was during these years that Tyrus displayed an interest in drawing and painting. His father had him practice calligraphy by painting with water on newspapers. Tyrus shared that during this time he also began painting for money, 50 cents the usual price. The farmers, all men, would often ask for the same thing, remembrances of home. It got so that he almost was able to list what they would want; a woman feeding chickens seemed to be a favorite request of many.

His interest in art led to a full scholarship from the Otis Institute of Art, where he was instructed in the western school of art. He balanced that with his own appreciation of the Sung Dynasty art at the Los Angeles Central Library. During the Depression, he was part of an Orientalist group of artists which brought him exhibitions across the country including a 1932 showing at the Chicago Art Institute. Although his work was seen by many, he struggled to survive.

Tyrus Wong shares some tales from his days on the Disney "Bambi" production with a
television crew during the press preview of the exhibition. Photo by Roger Colton

In 1938, he joined the Disney Studio as an in-betweener, drawing hundreds of sketches of Mickey Mouse. While a job, he found it boring and repetitious. When "Bambi" began production, he submitted samples of art, hoping to move to that team. Although small in scale, his art caught the eye of Walt and greatly influenced the production. For example, when showing a forest scene, it would not be necessary to create the image in detail. Rather key elements would be highlighted, letting the mind's eye fill in the details. Such can be seen in this 1942 image below. The Chinese minimalist school of art provided just the tone to bring this tale to life so vividly for audiences.

From the Disney Legend web page for Tyrus Wong :

When Walt Disney saw Ty's inspirational sketches, he was intrigued by their mysterious quality. The artist later told animation historian John Canemaker for his book Before the Animation Begins ,"Walt wanted something different for Bambi." As Thomas and Johnston wrote, "In contrast to the paintings that showed every detail of tiny flowers, broken branches, and fallen logs, Ty had a different approach and certainly one that had never been seen in an animated film before. He [Ty] explained, 'Too much detail-I tried to keep the thing very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.'"

A classic image from "Bambi" as conceptualized by Tyrus Wong. Image
courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum and Tyrus Wong

Sadly, Tyrus Wong was one of the casualties of the strike at the Disney Studio. With a family to feed, he went to work at Warner Bros. Studios as a production illustrator. He worked on a variety of films, including being loaned out to Republic Pictures. While there, he worked on several John Wayne westerns - a favorite film genre of his. Among the many films he provided concept art for were "Rebel Without A Cause ," "Calamity Jane ," "Harper ," "The Ice Palace ," "The Wild Bunch ," "Sands of Iwo Jima ," "Auntie Mame ," "April in Paris ," "Around the World in 80 Days " and "PT 109 ". He worked there for 26 years, "retiring" in 1968. (An interesting side note with another Disney twist. Another artist at Warner Bros., Harper Goff designed the interior saloon set used for "Calamity Jane". That same set was recreated at Disneyland as the interior of Golden Horseshoe Saloon in Frontierland. Small world, indeed...)

One of the conceptual drawings from "The Wild Bunch." Image courtesy of the
Walt Disney Family Museum and Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong also created art for the consumer. Everything from ceramics to textiles to greeting cards over the years.  Art was available at various high-end stores in the Los Angeles area.  His Christmas cards were a favorite of many. Every year he would design 20 to 25 different images, spending his summers listening to Christmas carols in sunny Southern California. Some of these images are available on post cards, along with some from "Bambi" are available in the gift shop at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Plans are to reissue some of the Christmas cards later this year. Also available are scarves and a fine exhibit catalog.

A fondly remembered Christmas card. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney
Family Museum and Tyrus Wong

In "retirement", Tyrus took to the skies with the creation of many kites. Many of his designs are on display above the exhibition. Even at the age of 102, Tryus still flies them every month on the beach at Santa Monica. The Museum will be having several events featuring kites including the opportunity to build and fly on the Main Post Parade Ground at the Presidio.

Tyrus and one of his kites on the beach. Image courtesy of
the Walt Disney Family Museum and Tyrus Wong

This exhibition contains over 150 pieces of the artwork of Tyrus Wong including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, painted scarves, ceramics, kites, and more. Organized by the Museum's Director of Collections, Michael Labrie, it offers visitors a fantastic glimpse into the work of this artist as well as telling of how his work has inspired so many.

Tyrus with some of his many kites on display, a pair
of seagulls in flight. Photo by Roger Colton

"Water to Paper, Paint to Sky - The Art of Tyrus Wong" will be on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum until February 3rd, 2014. The exhibition can be viewed in the special exhibition gallery located behind the Museum. Separate admission fees are charged for both the standard Museum gallery tour and the Tyrus Wong exhibition.

Banners for the exhibition along the walkway to the special gallery.
Photo by Roger Colton

Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum and Tyrus Wong

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in a historic brick building. The 40,000 square foot Museum was imaginatively re-conceived to house ten interactive galleries, featuring a glass-walled back exterior that frames a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Museum tells the story of the man behind the myth in Disney's own voice and in contemporary exhibits that feature state-of-the-art technologies, listening stations, more than 200 video screens and a 14 foot model of Disneyland. Visitors can also enjoy the Museum store, and the 114 seat, Fantasia-themed theater, which shows Disney classics daily.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays through Mondays. Closed on Tuesdays, and January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.

Admission for both the Museum and the Tyrus Wong exhibition can be purchased at the door, or online.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street on the Main Post of the historic Presidio in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.waltdisney.org.

EDITOR'S NOTE: And if you'd like to read some more Roger Colton goodness, be sure and head over to The Blue Parrot, Mr. Colton's personal blog.

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  • A great review of a great artist. I hope to make it to the Museum to see the exhibit. Thanks for the enjoyable story Roger!

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