“Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” at Walt Disney Family Museum

by Caitlin Kearney, Contributor on 08/15/2013

Tyrus Wong looks young for his age, with a good-natured twinkle in his eye and an easy smile, despite being surrounded by a constant flow of photo takers and admirers. But the magnitude and variety of his works betray the length of his career: Wong is 102 and started working for Walt Disney Studios in 1938. The Walt Disney Family Museum’s “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong”  celebrates the life of the prolific artist; his works range from paintings to ceramics to handcrafted kites, which he famously still flies monthly at Santa Monica Beach near his home. Throughout the over 150 works featured in the WDFM exhibition, there’s a common thread of whimsy and playfulness balanced by grace and quiet reflection. Wong’s creations are diverse in size, material and subject, but always embody the spirit of natural beauty and the atmospheric style that he draws from his Chinese roots.

Photo of Tyrus Wong by Sara Jane Boyers

It was this refreshing Eastern influence that first caught Walt Disney’s attention and inspired the aesthetics behind one of his early animated features: “Bambi,” a beloved classic that’s held its charm for decades. But before Wong introduced this simple, natural imagery to the big screen, he was working as an “in-betweener” at Disney Studios, performing the less glamorous task of making “in-between” drawings to insert among the animators’ primary drawings. When he heard that Disney was planning “Bambi” as the studio’s next big project, Wong drew up some scenes based on the natural descriptions in the book “Bambi” by Felix Salten. “You could almost smell the pine,” Wong said, feeling a connection to the forested landscapes in the story. He brought them to life in a manner modeled after Sung dynasty paintings, a style that Wong had been studying during his free time. Though Wong never personally met Disney, Bambi’s art director championed Wong’s illustrations for the film, which ultimately chartered new waters for animated art with their simple yet expressive style.

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“Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” at Walt Disney Family Museum

The two-floor exhibition space’s high ceilings, due to its previous life as the Presidio military post’s gymnasium, provided an optimal open space for Wong’s fanciful kites to fly. Wong’s personal history, beginning with his arrival at Angel Island at the age of nine where he was held briefly due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, offers an intriguing preface to the art exhibition. The first floor’s collection of drawings and paintings illustrate Wong’s careful study of calligraphy and inspiration from Sung dynasty styles, and also provides context as the exhibition moves into his illustrations for “Bambi” and later sketches at Warner Brothers films. The exhibit shows off the true breadth of his styles and materials, ranging from holiday cards to small toys Wong constructed for his children, including a dachshund modeled out of a Pringles can with a peanut for a nose.

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“Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” at Walt Disney Family Museum

The upstairs balcony focuses on Wong’s kites designs he has created for over 40 years after retiring from Warner Brothers. The exhibit hall’s space offers the perfect spot to display Wong’s larger kites, including colorful renditions of dragons, owls and fish. The whimsical forms are suspended freely in the airy space and are visible from both levels, making it even easier to picture Wong himself flying the kites as they swoop overhead. Throughout “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky,” from the realistic to the fantastical, one can’t help but think of Tyrus Wong as both an artist and an innovator.

 

“Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” is on display at the Walt Disney Family Museum through January 12, 2014.

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