THE ART OF TYRUS WONG Michael Labrie

August 15, 2013–February 3, 2014 The Walt Disney Family Museum San Francisco, California

Tyrus Wong paints the Celestial Dragon mural at Broadway Plaza in New Chinatown, Los Angeles1941 photographs by Harry Quillen

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A BEAUTIFUL SIMPLICIT Y

I first heard of Tyrus Wong when I was a student at USC. A friend of mine, a young man who eventually worked at the Walt Disney Studios, spoke of Tyrus and his role in Bambi in terms of reverence. I was intrigued and impressed.
I had never given much thought to the technical problems that film presented to the animators, but just enjoyed the beauty of it—the lovable characters, the limited but effective use of dialogue, the orchestra and chorus, the memorable melody and lyrics: “Love is a song that never ends”; “Drip, drip, drop, little April shower.” But the artists were having difficulty in developing background art to complement the realistic animals. “We could not use shading on our drawings,” stated Frank Thomas. “Everything had to be done in line backed up by a single shade of paint. How could a background with all the leaves and twigs and details of the forest be balanced against such a large, flat area?” Tyrus was newly come to the Walt Disney Studios. He’d been assigned the typical newcomer’s task of “inbetweening” and didn’t like it. He heard of Bambi, and spent several nights filling sheets of paper with small sketches of forest. He took them to Tom Codrick, his supervisor, who instantly realized that this was what they’d been looking for: impressionistic renderings of “an ethereal, mysterious forest” in an Asian aesthetic tradition. They showed them to my dad, Walt, whose reaction was enthusiastic. “I like that indefinite effect in the background—it’s effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them.” Tyrus explained, “Too much detail! I tried to keep the thing very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” Tyrus’s career at Disney was cut short by the negotiations that ended a strike. The studio was forced to take back the striking workers, which meant that some of the newer hires had to be let go. Tyrus went on to a full career at Warner Brothers and other things, but he never actually met my father. This has bothered me, and I wanted to meet him. Our mutual friend Charles Solomon brought him, along with his daughter and Alice Davis, to the newly opened Walt Disney Concert Hall one day, where I met them. We had lunch and sat in on a rehearsal in the symphony hall. Charles had told me about Tyrus’s kites, and that he flew them every last Saturday on Santa Monica Beach. It was more than a year before I made the trip down to witness this, accompanied by my daughter Jenny, granddaughter Madeline, grandson Ryan, with his video equipment, granddaughter Reilly, with her camera, and Michael Labrie, our museum’s director of collections. The occasion happened to be a celebration of Tyrus’s 102nd birthday. Michael and I decided that we needed to do an exhibit celebrating Tyrus’s art and career. This was the beginning.

Multicolored Caterpillar Rising at Sunset photograph by Sara Jane Boyers 18 x 22 inches 

Diane Disney Miller The Walt Disney Family Museum

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From Sacramento to Pasadena

Tyrus’s father was an educated man and appreciated poetry, art, and music. Like so many Chinese immigrants in Northern California, he discovered that manual labor was the only job he could get, so he moved to Los Angeles to look for work more suited to his experience and skills. When his father moved, Tyrus was left behind in Sacramento. He attended elementary school and Chinese school but soon started playing hooky. Upon hearing this news, in 1924, his father sent for Tyrus and arranged for him to live at a Methodist church in Pasadena, hoping this would be a good influence on him. It was at this time that Tyrus’s father recognized his son’s artistic talents. He discouraged him from playing sports for fear he would injure his hands, and insisted that Tyrus practice his art and calligraphy every day. Without money for inks and paints, Tyrus would dip a paintbrush in water and use it to draw Chinese characters on old newspapers; the characters disappeared when the paper dried, enabling Tyrus to reuse the paper again and again—an activity that provided him with a strong foundation in Chinese brushwork.

Tyrus Wong with his father c. 1925 photograph

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Tyrus Wong with fellow students, Chinese school, Sacramento, CAc. 1922 photograph

Tyrus Wong (in cap) with fellow students, Chinese school, Sacramento,CAc. 1923 photograph

BEGINNING S

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Tssang (The Monk)c. 1936 watercolor on paper | 38 7⁄8 x 21¼ inches

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The Dragon’s Den
Prior to his employment at the Disney Studio, Tyrus, like many of his fellow artists, struggled to survive. New opportunities—and a lifelong friendship—began when Tyrus met Eddy See, whose gallery on the mezzanine level of Eddy’s family’s store, the F. Suie One Company in Los Angeles, was the first to exhibit and promote the work of Asian American artists, including Tyrus. It was the Depression, and although the art gallery was well received, there were few customers who could afford to buy the artwork or the store’s treasures. What’s the one thing everyone needs to do no matter how poor they are? Eat! So Eddy, with the collaboration of his family and artist friends, opened a restaurant called the Dragon’s Den in the basement of the store. The Dragon’s Den was only the seventh family-style Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, and it stood out among the chop suey joints of Chinatown, not least because of the wall-to-wall murals and hand-painted menus created by Tyrus and his fellow artists. The trendy subterranean restaurant attracted Hollywood stars such as Peter Lorre, Anna May Wong, and Sydney Greenstreet. Tyrus designed two monkey murals for the Dragon’s Den. He also worked as a waiter, and it was there that he got to know Ruth Kim, his future wife. The Sees and the Wongs became best friends and would spend holidays together with their friends and relatives, Gilbert and Sissee See Leong. To this day, their descendants and Tyrus still get together on holidays and special occasions.

Fisherman, Dragon’s Den menu cover c. 1935 watercolor on paper and rattan | 10 1⁄8 x 12½ inches

Gourd with Wasp, Dragon’s Den menu coverc. 1935 watercolor on paper | 13½ x 10 1⁄8 inches

Bok Choy with Peas, Dragon’s Den menu coverc. 1935 watercolor on paper | 13½ x 10 inches

A NE W S T Y LE OF PA INTING

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Tyrus's close friends Eddy and Sissee See Leong operated a restaurant called the Dragon’s Den, where stars and artists gathered (NE AR RIGHT) . For the restaurant, Benji Okubo designed the murals of the Eight Immortals and their symbols ( ABOVE LEF T AND RIGHT) , carefully drawing the outlines. His helpers, Tyrus and other fellow students from Otis and Chouinard, would finish the paintings.

Dragon’s Den muralc. 1935 graphite on plywood with varnish two panels, each 96½ x 48 inches
OPPOSITE

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Visual development, Bambi1942 charcoal on paper by Disney Studio artist 6¼ x 8½ inches
ABOVE

Visual development, Bambi 1942 pastel on paper | 5¼ x 7 inches
OPPOSITE

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Tyrus’s atmosphere sketches gave a new direction to the art and styling of the film, using a broad range of color and a variety of locales, but always with a delicate, slightly mysterious feeling. To capture and re-create the nuanced shading of his originals, many of the background painters had to switch from gouache to oil paints. The subtle pastel drawings and moody watercolors could not all be used, because they became coarse and vague when projected on the big screen. But the film retained the ethereal feeling Tyrus had created, and Walt Disney was enthusiastic. He commented: “I like that indefinite effect in the background—it’s effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them [the characters].” Like the Sung-dynasty painters who influenced him, Tyrus doesn’t depict a specific landscape, but captures the sense of being in the woods. You can visit the Rouen Cathedral and figure out where Monet stood when he painted it. The thickets and trees Tyrus paints show less of what you would see and more of what you would feel walking through a forest. —Charles Solomon, animation historian The influence Ty had on this film made the film! His styling made it different from any other Disney film . . . there are some beautiful drawings, taking these complicated things with eight million leaves, and he was able to find a way of putting these things together so you felt the dampness and the moisture of everything in the forest, but you didn’t draw every single leaf—they were beautiful! —Marc Davis, Disney animator

Visual development, Bambi1942 color pencil and graphite on paper by Disney Studio artist 41⁄8 x 5½ inches
TOP

Visual development, Bambi1942 watercolor on paper by Disney Studio artist 5 x 6 inches
BOT TOM

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Visual development, Bambi1942 watercolor on paper TOP 41⁄8 x 5½ inches | BOT TOM 4¾ x 6 inches

Visual development, Bambi1942 color pencil and graphite on paper by Disney Studio artists TOP 4½ x 5¾ inches | BOT TOM 5 x 6¼ inches

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Painted Silk Scarves

Tyrus created a portfolio of hand-painted silk scarves with the intent of selling them in department stores and boutiques. With his wife, Ruth’s, help, he specified details for each work of art. Ruth described the significance of the symbolic characters from nature, while Tyrus created watercolors of women wearing the scarves to show how they could be styled. Ruth Wong was instrumental in most of her husband’s endeavors. Born Ruth Kimm (later Kim) in Bakersfield, California, in 1909, she attended UCLA as an English major and got to know Tyrus while they both waited on tables at the Dragon’s Den restaurant. She worked as a secretary for Y. C. Hong, the first Chinese immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, and was active in the Los Angeles Chinese Women’s Club. Ruth did the writing and research for Tyrus’s projects and handled the business side for him, along with raising their three daughters.

A RT A F TER DISNE Y

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Abstract c. 1940 paint on silk scarf | 28 x 36 inches
TOP

TOP Sword Dance c. 1940 paint on silk scarf | 36 x 35 inches BOT TOM Salesman’s portfolio for hand-painted silk scarves c. 1940 watercolor and ink on paper | 13 x 39 inches

Salesman’s portfolio for hand-painted silk scarves c. 1940 watercolor and ink on paper | 13 x 39 inches
BOT TOM

A RT A F TER DISNE Y

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Early Bird Gets a Wormc. 2010 recycled material, paint, opaque watercolor, cardboard, Ping-Pong ball, and feathers 8 x 9 x 12 inches Holiday toy for daughters 

TOYS

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During the period from 1960 to 1980, Tyrus Wong produced numerous paintings that are different in many ways from his previous works. When asked about these paintings, he stated, “They represent loneliness, and a little sadness. Isolation.” Amid a wide and bleak field, a boy plays with a yo-yo. A neglected carriage or farmhouse stands in an expansive, seemingly endless field. Other works, not represented here, include a series of lonely trees and scarecrows. This group of paintings illustrates an emotion and a moment in time. This is the gift that Tyrus mastered: In a way that seems almost effortless, he communicates a feeling to us through paint, paper, and a knowing hand.

Boy with Yo-Yoc. 1970 acrylic on masonite | 24 x 40 inches

BIG SK Y PA INTINGS

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After retirement, Tyrus was restless. One day, his wife, Ruth, offered, “Why don’t you go fly a kite?” Inspired by this challenge, he embarked on the traditional and complex art of Chinese kitemaking. Tyrus has been inducted into the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame for his amazing creations, which include hundred-foot-long centipedes, a fluttering of butterflies, and schools of delicately painted goldfish. Tyrus continues to fly his kites once a month on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California. Beautiful flocks of birds rise high above the beach while Tyrus orchestrates his friends and family to join in the fun in the sand. I met Tyrus Wong on the beach where, for the last 40 years, he has brought his handmade kites out to fly. I first came for my photographic project on the North American Chinatowns. I returned because of Tyrus, his kites, and his community. What fascinates me: the artist always at work; one who wants to share his art with the world. In his studio hang examples of Tyrus’s tireless curiosity about the making of his kites. Tyrus’s painterly mark—a traditional chop, his signature, or colorful dots—is evident throughout, including on the string spools, handles, and even the packing boxes. Whether working as a fine artist or a commercial artist, Tyrus makes his work accessible for our sheer enjoyment. Family, friends, and passersby join Tyrus monthly at the beach. Kim Wong brings snacks and green tea. There we share our native landscape, our stories. We join in spreading out the centipedes, navigating a kite through the winds, gathering them in to pack away at sunset. We gaze in awe as owls, swallows, panda bears, and objects of sheer color and design dance in the sky. At the beach we celebrate Tyrus, community, and the seasons. —Sara Jane Boyers
Sara Jane Boyers is a California fine art photographer. Her photos reside in public and private collections and have been published in magazines, books, and online media.

Tyrus with Closed Centipede photograph by Sara Jane Boyers 49 x 41 inches

K ITE S

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Beach. Lift-Off. Community. photographs by Sara Jane Boyers

Mini-Centipedec. 1990 wire, ripstop nylon, thread, rattan, and opaque watercolor | 6 x 25 x 14 inches

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JOHN L ASSETER

Animation is a truly timeless art form, and Bambi will always be among its most exquisite examples—beautiful, fresh, and original forever. What many people don’t realize, though, is how revolutionary it was in its visual storytelling. When you look at most films of that era, you see that they were fairly straightforward in the way they depicted their environments. Tyrus Wong took an entirely different approach with his styling for Bambi.

His forest world has such a sense of clarity and believability that it isn’t until you really look at the backgrounds that you realize how impressionistic they are. This sophistication of expression was a gigantic leap forward for the medium. Where other films were literal, using backgrounds that showed detailed objects and settings, Bambi was expressive and emotional. Tyrus painted feelings, not objects.
John Lasseter is a two-time Academy Award® –winning director and is the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, creatively overseeing all films and associated projects.

IN SPIR ATION

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IMAGE CREDITS
All images are © Tyrus Wong except for the following: Sara Jane Boyers (www.sarajaneboyersphoto .com) pages 4, 8, 126, 127, 129, gatefold composition beneath pages 130–31, 130, 131, 132, 133, 138, 139; Bruno Bozzetto page 143; Peter Brenner back jacket, page 142; Michael Carroll page 150; Disney pages 44–61, 149; Disney•Pixar pages 146, 147, 148, 151, 152; Ildiko Lazslo page 154; Reilly Miller pages 124–25; Kuniko Okubo page 153 (left); Irene Poon page 10; Harry Quillen pages 6, 7, 38; Dice Tsutsumi page 155; Roger Viloria page 145; Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved pages 90–105. All images are courtesy of the Tyrus Wong Family except for those listed above and the following: Daniel Arriaga page 147; Mara Baygulova page 36 (left); Michael D. Brown pages 20 (right), 28 (right), 37 (left); California State Parks page 16; Chinese American Museum pages 15 (right), 26–27 (Gift of Sanora Babb Howe); Kay Fong pages 110 (right), 111 (right), 113; Mike Glad pages 52, 53, 55 (top middle, middle right, bottom right), 56, 57, 58; Leslee See Leong pages 21 (right), 24, 25, 35 (bottom left), 39, 40; Los Angeles Public Library (Harry Quillen Collection) pages 6, 7, 38; Gift of Ron and Diane Miller page 47; National Archives and Records page 17; Diane Nishimoto page 77 (top and bottom right); Santa Monica High School (Federal Work Project of the WPA) pages 30, 31; Lisa See pages 34, 41; Charles Solomon page 54; Walt Disney Family Foundation pages 46, 55 (top left, bottom left, center, middle bottom, top right), 59, 60–61; Kim Wong pages 109, 110 (left), 112; Tai-Ling Wong pages 108, 110 (middle), 111 (left).

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Michael Labrie would like to extend a very special thank you to Tyrus Wong and his family, especially Kim Wong; his kite-f lying friends and family, including cousin Phil, for naming the exhibition; Diane Disney Miller, for her unwavering support; the Miller family, for their trust and encouragement; and Sara Jane Boyers, who brought her artist’s eye and fascination with the story of Tyrus, his kites, his studio, and his community of followers to the Museum. Thank you to everyone who contributed support, advice, or materials to the book and exhibition: Angel Island Immigration Station, Mara Baygulova, Bruno Bozzetto, Peter Brenner, Michael D. Brown, California State Parks, John Canemaker, Mak Ming Chan, Andreas Deja, Ronnie del Carmen, Pete Docter, Ralph Eggleston, Paul Felix, Kay Fong, Erik Friedl, Mike Glad, Laurie Ann Guiterrez with the Santa Monica High School, Don Hahn, J. B. Kaufman, John Lasseter, Jon Lee, Leslee See Leong, Los Angeles Public Library, Marisa Louie at NARA, Sonia Mak, Rielly Miller, Joelle Mintz at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, Pornchai Mittongtare, Diane Nishimoto, Tim O’Brien, Stan Pawlowski, Steve Pilcher, Irene Poon, Lisa See, Roger Shaw and all at Weldon Owen Publishing, Ryan Sheer, Charles Solomon, Ted Thomas, Pamela Tom, Dice Tsutsumi, Kim Wong, Tai-Ling Wong, Pam Wong at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, Sharon Dovas, Brianne Gallagher, Michelle Moretta, Jonas Rivera, and all of our friends at Pixar Animation Studios. Thank you to all of the supportive staff at the Walt Disney Family Museum, especially Nancy Wolf, Josh Pearl, John Stroh, and the rest of her facilities and operations team; the staff of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, including Mark Gibson, Brenda Litzinger, Tonja Morris, Harvey Newman, Martin Salazar, and Lynn Zook; and Jim Slater and his exhibition team, Ben Peters and Issey Honton. Special kudos to Marina Villar Delgado, project manager, designer, and coach. It has been great working with Marina—her focus, dedication, and skill created a beautiful, elegant, and wonderful exhibition. I could not have done this without her. Arigato gozaimashita.

Published by The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press®, LLC. 104 Montgomery Street in the Presidio San Francisco, CA 94129 All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the Walt Disney Family Foundation Press. A Production President, CEO Terry Newell VP, Publisher Roger Shaw Creative Director Kelly Booth Book Designer Debbie Berne Production Director Chris Hemesath Production Manager Michelle Duggan Copy Editor Laura Harger Calligraphy Mak Ming Chan Weldon Owen is a division of Bonnier. www.weldonowen.com © 2013 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press is not affiliated with The Walt Disney Company or Disney Enterprises, Inc. ISBN 13: 978-1-61628-682-8 ISBN 10: 1-61628-682-2 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 2015 2014 2013 Printed and bound in China by 1010 Printing Limited.

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