From August 15, 2013 to February 3, 2014, The Walt Disney Family Museum will present the exhibition Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong. Organized by Michael Labrie, the museum’s director of collections, the exhibition will focus on the life and work of Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong—a celebrated painter, muralist, kite maker, lithographer, Hollywood sketch artist, calligrapher, ceramicist, and Disney Legend. At age 102, Wong is still a practicing artist today.
This retrospective features more than 150 works including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, painted scarves, kites, and more. Although he never met Walt Disney, it was the ethereal beauty of Wong’s Eastern influenced paintings that caught Walt’s eye and became the inspiration for the animated feature Bambi, which changed the way animation art was presented, and continues to be an inspiration to contemporary artists.
Overcoming adversity, poverty, and racial discrimination, Wong used his passion and interpretation of the bold art of the Sung dynasty, and his experience working as a depression-era muralist, California watercolorist, and film production illustrator, to become one of the bohemian artists whose creativity and drive helped shape the cultural, artistic life of Los Angeles during the 1930s and 40s.
In 1938, Wong took a job at the Walt Disney Studios as an inbetweener, one who goes through the tedious process of making “in-between” drawings that filled out the movement of the characters between the animators’ key drawings. He recalled “At the end of the day, I thought my eyes were going to pop out,” as he flipped through countless drawings of Mickey Mouse and stared at the light in the drawing board. When he heard that Disney’s next feature-length film was going to be Bambi, he saw an opportunity to present his work.
Wong read Felix Salten’s Bambi and “thought the story was very, very nice—the feeling—you could almost smell the pine,” and made sample sketches creating the lush mountain and forest settings, inspired by Sung dynasty landscape paintings. He had a different approach and one that had never been seen before in an animated film.
“I tried to keep it very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.”
Tom Codrick, the film’s art director, was impressed with his sensitive style, which was vastly different from the more ornate style of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which preceded it. Tyrus’s Chinese-inspired sketches and paintings set the look and tone for Bambi, and were some of the most strikingly beautiful art ever produced at the Walt Disney Studios.
In 2001, Wong was named a Disney Legend, and his work continues to inspire and influence the leading animators of today.
The exhibition also includes paintings, hand painted ceramics and silk scarves, original greeting cards, works on paper, and his latest work including handmade and hand-painted kites, which range in size from six inches to 100 feet.