Mr. Tyrus Wong, a Disney Legend

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chinese american heroesChinese American Heroes introduces one of our youngest Chinese American heroes, Mr. Tyrus Wong, who recently celebrated his 103rd birthday.  The truth is, he is the youngest 103 year old member in this heroes’ website.   He was in San Francisco on October 3, 2013 and was awarded the Chinese American Heroes certificate.  Wong is a delightful personality and a joy to meet even at his young age.

Tyrus Wong’s cinematic artistry has been displayed and enjoyed by many generations of movie goers around the world for more than seven decades. And most of us have never heard of him!  He began his career in animation with Walt Disney in 1938, and when “Bambi” was conceptualized, Tyrus  presented backdrop artwork using Sung Dynasty landscapes which was instantly loved by Disney, and his artistry revolutionized animation. Prior to Ty Wong’s introduction of ethereal landscape artistry, background art in animation was very flat and unimaginative – just straight forward sketches of nature.  But Ty Wong’s imaginative and lively brushwork changed all that.

Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong at his work studio in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of

Wong’s artistic creations include paintings, murals, ceramics, scarf painting, sketch illustrations, Christmas cards, lithography, toys, and world class kites.  His kites are truly unique.  In the exhibition, there is a hundred foot kite made with meticulous detail.  You can see even larger Ty Wong’s kites at the Santa Monica beach on weekends.

Mr. Michael Labrie, Director of Collections, Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio of San Francisco met with the artist in his home, and after viewing Tyrus’ artistic creations over his lifetime, convinced Tyrus to display much of his creations at the Disney Museum.  Thank you MICHAEL for facilitating this exhibit and also the Disney Family production of the illustrative book “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong.”

For those who have not yet visited the Disney Museum at the San Francisco Presidio, it is highly recommended.  Youngsters may not appreciate the story of Walt Disney, but many of us older youngsters will find the Museum truly rewarding and entertaining.  All of Walt Disney’s films are displayed in dozens of flat panel screens.  This is a multi-hour treasure, and after enjoying delicious chunks of all of Walt’s films, you will be able to enjoy the masterworks of Tyrus Wong, a separate exhibition with a $10.oo admission – well worth it.

The Art of Tyrus Wong at The Walt Disney Family Museum

Tyrus Wong's Sung Dynasty landscapes transformed Walt Disney's "Bambi."

Tyrus Wong’s Sung Dynasty landscapes transformed Walt Disney’s “Bambi.”

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.

Tyrus Wong and Roger Dong.

Tyrus Wong and Roger Dong.

In 1938, Wong took a job at the Walt Disney Studios as an in-between-er, 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. He explained, “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 in Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

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.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery St (inside the San Francisco Presidio down from the old Presidio Officer’s Club), and adjacent to the Presidio Museum (free attraction).  Parking is free on the weekend and standard city parking rates are in effect the weekdays.  The museum closes at 6 pm, so don’t go in at 4:30 and expect to be able to see everything.  Admission to the Museum is $20.00 and veterans get a $5.00 discount.  There is a coffee shop in the museum and also an open studio artist room.


Roger S. Dong is Chairman of Chinese American Heroes.


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