by Rebecca Chang
“Painting is a poem and a poem is a painting.” These are the words of Tyrus Wong, who is perhaps best known for quietly leaving his artistic mark on the 1942 classic film Bambi, a role that would later earn him the honor of a Disney Legend in 2001. From observing Wong’s art, the meaning of his words become evident. His sketches of Bambi depict soft watercolors layered upon delicately structured light and form to create an ethereal mood. Drawing comparisons to poetry, his art is sparse in composition yet bursting with emotional richness. Though Wong is modest about his art, considering himself not a great artist, but rather an artist making a respectable living from his work, the exhibition “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” at the Walt Disney Family Museum belies his humbleness and provides a stunning showcase of his diverse range of artistic talents and works.
The exhibition opens with the story of Wong’s childhood and his emigration from China to the United States at the young age of nine. The year was 1919 and against the backdrop of a sociopolitical climate of racial discrimination characterized by the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Wong was detained and interrogated by immigration officials at the Angel Island Immigration Station. After three weeks, Wong was released and eventually settled with his father in Pasadena, California. From an early age, Wong demonstrated exceptional artistic potential and went on to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, supporting himself through scholarships and janitorial work. Wong overcame many economic and racial adversities to become the artist he is today, and the decision to preface the exhibition with his personal history is both thoughtfully intriguing as well as deliberate: it provides the context for the audience to fully appreciate and understand the cultural significance of his emergence as a Chinese American artist.
“Water to Paper” is in essence a celebration of Wong’s life that takes the audience through a chronological exploration of his career as an artist, with highlights including his stint as an inbetweener at Walt Disney Studios, the animator responsible for filling in movements in between drawings to portray the illusion of motion, to his twenty-six year career at Warner Brothers Studios as a preproduction illustrator, creating concept images for films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Green Berets (1968). Beyond animation, Wong also created artwork for the consumer, including ceramics, scarves, and holiday cards. His holiday cards were especially popular, with some designs selling over a million copies.
Wong’s passion for his craft is reflected in his family life as well, particularly in two display cases, featuring one-of-a-kind Christmas toys that Wong handcrafted for his children. Among the toys are a Noah’s ark fashioned from a butter container, complete with animal crackers inside. This sliver of a glimpse into Wong’s role as a family man shows a more playful side of his work as an artist, balanced by the graceful tranquility characteristic of his Sung Dynasty-inspired paintings.
“Water to Paper” is expansive – it includes over 150 works spanning a variety of artistic mediums. Yet, despite its size, “Water to Paper” never loses a sense of intimacy with its subject and interspersed throughout the gallery are video interviews with Wong and anecdotes from family members and friends who provide an insider’s perspective into the man behind the art.
Today, at age 102, Wong has the distinction of being the oldest living Chinese American artist. He has since turned his focus to kite-making, and the second floor of the gallery exhibition is dedicated to his kites. With its high rise ceilings, the former gymnasium-turned-museum provides the ideal open space for his exquisite creations. Suspended in mid-air, these kites – a whimsical parade of vibrantly hued birds, dragons, and koi – serve as a fitting metaphor for Wong’s free spirit.
“Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum now through February 3rd, 2014.