By Pat KRAMER
Tyrus Wong, the legendary Disney animation artist and longtime resident of Sunland, died recently at the age of 106 after reaching a pinnacle of success that few artists ever attain. Known best for transforming the process of art in animation in the well-loved Disney film “Bambi,” Wong’s settings in the 1942 film utilized his expertise in landscape painting duplicating the technique of the Chinese Song Dynasty. “Bambi” received praise for its “haunting visual style.”
Michael Labrie, director of Collections of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco said, “[Wong] basically created the look of the film … Everything you see on the screen – the other artists were trained to draw like Tyrus for that film.” In 2001, Wong was declared a “Disney Legend.”
After leaving Disney, Wong spent many years working for Warner Bros., contributing his imaginative artistry to dozens of films including “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969). His obituary, which ran in the New York Times, called him “one of the most celebrated Chinese-American artists of the 20th century” crediting his imaginative contributions as a Hollywood studio artist, painter, printmaker, calligrapher, greeting-card illustrator and, in later years, a maker of fantastical kites.
Wong created hundreds of paintings in the style of Chinese scroll paintings, some of which were included in the sale of the Lake View Terrace estate “Villa Fontani,” when Sally Hall, formerly of Century 21 Crest Realty, sold it in 1998. Twice listed on the Little Landers Historic Home Tour, the 3,000 square foot home, built by Disney designer Fred Joerger in 1952, boasted five working fireplaces, a 16,000 gallon pond with a 12 foot waterfall, and a formal dining room and master bedroom whose ceiling frescoes displayed fantasy-like scenes of heaven intricately hand-painted by artist Wong.
Hall, now with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, shared a personal memory of Wong.
“I never met him but I saw his work at Villa Fontani. His artwork was a main reason that this house was included on the Historic Home Tours and was certainly a major factor in the sale of the home,” said Hall. “I sent Mr. Wong a thank you note for creating such beautiful works of art and, to my surprise, he sent me a note back and even did a little drawing on the side. I really treasured it for a long time.”
Kim Wong spoke of her father’s longevity in living to 106.
“He led a quiet life, living here since 1950,” Wong said. “He didn’t smoke or drink, he ate pretty healthily and I think he had a pretty good attitude. He was not a bitter person even though he faced some racial injustice. In his later years, he loved entertainment people and flying his kites; it was relaxing and he looked forward to it.”
Artist and actress Krystee Clark, president of the Sunland–Tujunga Neighborhood Council, remembered seeing Wong flying his kites at Venice Beach.
“My aunt used to take me to see him fly his incredible kites at the beach when I was a young girl,” Clark said. “I always loved the idea of flying kites but was never very good at it. He made it look effortless.”
She added, “Being such a Disney fan, I was intrigued to hear about his incredible involvement with ‘Bambi.’ He left an indelible mark and led a remarkable life. His is an immigrant story that reminds us all of how lucky we are to live in America. We have so many incredible artists that live in the foothills. I wish I would have gotten to know him in his life here in Sunland.”
When Wong moved to Sunland in 1950, the street he lived on was a dirt road and it was very quiet. His daughter Kim recalled that he loved nature and that his primary love was for landscape art.
“He let the yard grow naturally like a forest, which was interesting because one of his big breaks was working on the film Bambi, which was in a forest,” said Wong. “He was generous, he had a good sense of humor, he loved people and he had a passion for art. He didn’t consider himself a ‘great artist’ but rather, a ‘lucky artist.’”
Tyrus Wong passed away on Dec. 30. His memorial service was held on Friday, Jan. 13 at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills.
The full-length documentary film “Tyrus,” by director/producer Pamela Tom, is the story of Wong’s life. It premiered in September at the 42nd Telluride Film Festival and has since won acclaim receiving the Audience Award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and Best Documentary Feature at the Hawaii International Film Festival. “Tyrus” will premiere on a local PBS station in summer 2017.
For more information on the documentary, visit: