Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) was one of the most influential Asian American artists of the 20th century, most celebrated for his work as lead production designer in Disney’s Bambi. He was born in Guangdong during the era of Chinese Exclusion. At the age of ten, Wong immigrated to the US with his father as a “paper son” and was detained alone at Angel Island for nearly a month. While Wong’s father was too poor to fund art school or even paper and ink, he encouraged his son to develop his artistic talent by practicing calligraphy every night with water on newspaper. Wong received a summer scholarship to Otis Art Institute in junior high and stayed on for five years as their youngest student while working as a campus janitor to pay his tuition.
Wong initially joined Disney as a lowly “in-betweener” on the animation assembly line. But after hearing of the company’s difficulties rendering the backgrounds for Bambi, Wong drew from his formal training and Song Dynasty landscape paintings to create lyrical, atmospheric scenes that blew Walt Disney himself away. Wong’s vision informed every aspect of the making of Bambi, noted to this day for its unique and haunting visual style. After an animator’s strike at Disney, Wong left the company to work at Warner Brothers until his retirement. Wong’s other artistic contributions included Hallmark Christmas cards, murals, ceramics, lithography, and remarkable kites. Wong was formally honored by Disney for his groundbreaking work on Bambi as a Disney Legend in 2001.