Tyrus Wong, the artist whose drawings of a deer in the forest famously became the inspiration for the look of Disney’s Bambi, has died at 106. Tyrus Wong was a Chinese-born American artist. He was a painter, muralist, ceramicist, lithographer, designer and kite maker.
Tyrus Wong was born in Taishan, Guangdong, China. In 1920, when he was 9 years old, Wong and his father emigrated to the United States, and never again came into contact with his mother and sister. Wong was held on Angel Island initially, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was separated on the island from his father, the only child in sight. "Nine years old, I was scared half to death," he later recalled. After his release from Angel Island, he and his father initially relocated to Sacramento. His father moved the family to Los Angeles.
While attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, Wong's teachers noticed his artistic ability and he received a summer scholarship at the Otis Art Institute. Wong decided to leave junior high for a full-time studentship at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.. Wong's father survived on a more modest income, and Wong worked as a janitor at Otis. He walked for miles to attend classes. He graduated from Otis in 1930 and began working in Hollywood.
In 1938 Wong was hired as an “inbetweener” at Walt Disney Studios, drawing sketches of Mickey Mouse. Then, according to the museum: “When he heard that the studio was in pre-production on the feature film Bambi, he went home and painted several pictures of a deer in a forest. The small, but evocative sketches captured the attention of Walt Disney and became the basis for the film’s visual style. Walt Disney saw that Tyrus was able to produce exquisite artwork that did not necessarily look like the forest — but rather, felt like the forest. Walt’s vision for Bambi and use of Tyrus’ work still influences films today.”
Wong was let go by Disney studios shortly after finishing Bambi, due to repercussions from the Disney animators' strike. He then moved to Warner Bros, where he was a concept and story artist with credits including The Sands Of Iwo Jima, Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild Bunch. Later, he designed popular greeting cards for Hallmark, some of his Christmas cards selling over 1 million copies.
He retired in 1968. After retiring in 1968, Wong continued to create colorful kites (usually animals such as pandas, goldfish, or centipedes). He spent his Saturdays flying his creations on the Santa Monica Pier. He was named a Disney Legend in 2001, and in 2013 the Disney Family Museum mounted an exhibition of his work Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong.
Some of his well known paintings include Self Portrait (late 1920s), Fire (1939), Reclining Nude(1940s), East (1984) and West (1984). He told an interviewer that he's a "lucky artist."
Wong was featured in Mark Wexler's documentary How to Live Forever, where he discussed his daily lifestyle and his view on mortality, and more recently, in Pamela Tom's documentary Tyrus(2015).
He was married to Ruth Ng Kim , a second-generation Chinese American from a farming family in Bakersfield, California. Ruth worked as a lawyer but became a homemaker after the birth of their children. The couple has three daughters: Kay (born 1938), Tai-ling (born 1941), and Kim (born 1946) and two grandchildren. Wong refers to his daughters as his "greatest achievements. Ruth died on January 12, 1995.