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‘Bambi’ Artist Tyrus Wong Dead at 106

Chinese immigrant artist who created the haunting visual style of Walt Disney’s beloved animated classic overcame poverty, discrimination and a lack of recognition to become one of the most celebrated Chinese-American artists of the 20th century.

Disney artist, painter, printmaker, calligrapher, illustrator, and kitemaker Tyrus Wong passed away on Friday, December 31, 2016, at the age of 106, according to a report by the New York Times. The artist responsible for creating the spare, haunting visual style of Walt Disney’s Bambi passed much of his career unknown to the general public. He spent two years painting the illustrations that would inform every aspect of Bambi, and his influence is unmistakable in the finished film.

“Trained as a painter, Mr. Wong was a leading figure in the Modernist movement that flourished in California between the first and second World Wars. In 1932 and again in 1934, his work was included in group shows at the Art Institute of Chicago that also featured Picasso, Matisse and Paul Klee,” as the New York Times writes:

As a staff artist for Hollywood studios from the 1930s to the 1960s, he drew storyboards and made vibrant paintings, as detailed as any architectural illustrations, that helped the director envision each scene before it was shot. Over the years his work informed the look of animated pictures for Disney and live-action films for Warner Brothers and other studios, among them “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969). But of the dozens of films on which he worked, it was for “Bambi” that Mr. Wong was — belatedly — most renowned.

Born on October 25, 1910, in a farming village in Guangdong Province, Wong exhibited a love of drawing at an early age, and was encouraged by his father. The pair left China in 1920 for the United States, leaving Wong’s mother and sister behind. Faced by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they travelled under false identities in order to take advantage of a loophole in the immigration laws created by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Their journey to Angel Island, considered the Ellis Island of the West Coast, is documented in Tyrus, the award-winning winning documentary directed by Pamela Tom, which premiered in 2015. Once they arrived, on December 30, 1920, Wong’s father cleared immigration quickly, while Wong was detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station for nearly a month -- the only child among the immigrants being held there -- while officials decided his fate.

Wong and his father eventually made their way to Los Angeles, where as a junior high student Wong caught the notice of one of his teachers, who arranged for Wong to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a summer scholarship.

When his scholarship ended Wong decided to pursue an art career full-time, and his father somehow managed to scrape up the then-$90 tuition to let him stay on as Otis’s youngest student. He studied there for at least five years, simultaneously working as the school janitor, before graduating in the 1930s. Not long afterward his father died, leaving Wong entirely on his own.

From 1936 to 1938, Wong worked as an artist for the Works Progress Administration, creating paintings for libraries and other public spaces. Newly married, he joined Disney in 1938 as an “in-betweener,” creating the thousands of intermediate drawings that bring animated sequences to life. He began working on Bambi later that same year after his background paintings caught the eye of Walt Disney and he was unofficially promoted to the rank of concept artist.

Wong spent two years painting the illustrations that would inform every aspect of Bambi, and throughout the finished film his influence is unmistakable. But Wong was fired in the wake of the bitter 1941 artists strike, and in the final film he is credited only as a background artist.

Wong next joined Warner Bros., in 1942, working there until his retirement in 1968. He became a United States citizen in 1946, the same year he began designing Christmas cards for Hallmark and painting Asian-inflected designs on what is now highly-collectable dinnerware. Living with his wife in Sunland, CA, Wong became in retirement a renowned kitemaker, designing astonishing creations up to 100 feet long.

In 2001, in formal recognition of his influence on Bambi, Wong was named a Disney Legend, an honor bestowed by the Walt Disney Company for outstanding contributions. In 2003, a retrospective of Wong’s work was the inaugural exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, and in 2013 and 2014, he was the subject of “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky,” a major retrospective at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

Wong reportedly died at this home in Sunland, CA, and his survivors include three daughters, Kay Fong, Tai-Ling Wong and Kim Wong; and two grandchildren.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.