Tyrus Wong, the Chinese American artist who created some of the most popular images in American culture, is being honored with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 108th birthday.
The Google Doodle is created by guest artist Sophie Diao, a CalArts graduate who was inspired by Wong’s career. According to the Chinese American Museum, Wong was “one of the earliest and most influential Chinese American artists in the United States” and a versatile painter who was also a masterful muralist, ceramicist, lithographer, designer, and kite maker.
“Tyrus Wong’s story is a prime example of one of the many gaping holes in our society’s narrative on art, cinema, and Western history,” says Pamela Tom, the director of the 2017 documentary Tyrus, and someone who considers him one of the country’s “unsung heroes.”
Here’s what you need to know about Wong and his illustrious career:
1. He Moved from China to L.A. As a Child & Earned His Degree At the Otis Art Institute
Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo on October 25, 1910 in Taishan, Guangdong, China. At the age of nine, Wong and his father immigrated to the United States, leaving his mother and sister behind. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, however, Wong was initially held at the Angel Island Immigration Station. “Nine years old, I was scared half to death,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Wong and his father had to immigrate illegally under assumed identities, or “paper sons,” and they eventually settled in Los Angeles.
Wong developed his interest in the arts at the Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, where a teacher took note of his talent and encouraged him to pursue it. Wong received a scholarship to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles during the summer, and his passion for the program, along with the support of his father, led to him quitting junior high and becoming a full-time student at the Art Institute. He worked as a janitor on the campus to support himself, and eventually graduated in 1930.
Wong entered the Hollywood workforce as an animator and cartoonist in the 1930s. It was during this time that he met Ruth Ng Kim at the Dragon’s Den Restaurant in Los Angeles, where she worked as a waitress. They married on June 27, 1937 in Bakersfield, and had three daughters: Kay, born 1938; Tai-Ling, born 1943; and Kim, born 1949.
2. He Was the Production Designer on Disney ‘s 1942 Classic ‘Bambi’
Wong’s big break came when he was hired by Disney to be the lead artist on the film Bambi. In an interview with Michael Barrier, he recounts the circumstances by which he got the job. “After our first girl was born, I had to have a job, so I went into Disney,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the industry then… I heard they were doing Bambi, so, on my own free time, I did a lot of sketches of Bambi, with the forest background, and so forth, and took them in to the studio.”
Wong would spend three and a half years working on Bambi, which was released to universal acclaim in 1942. The film was praised for its bold use of color and minimalist brushwork, and the New York Times pointed out that Wong’s style was heavily indebted to Chinese art. Shortly after Bambi was completed, however, labor disputes led to Wong’s dismissal from Disney Studios.
Looking back at his time with Disney, Wong told Barrier: “I liked Disney very, very much. I liked the people at Disney… At Disney, we had a whole bunch of artists together, and we had a hell of a lot of fun, and we all seemed to understand each other. People were more sincere.”
3. He Was a Storyboard Artist for Live-Action Films Like ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ & ‘The Wild Bunch’
In 1943, Wong was hired to be a storyboard artist for Warner Bros. “After I got canned, a friend of mine who worked with me on Bambi, Travis Johnson, was at a major studio, Warner Bros,” he recalled. “[So] he called me up and said, ‘Why don’t you come work as a sketch artist?’ So I went into Warners. In fact, it was these sketches [for Bambi] that got me into Warner Bros, and I stayed there more than twenty years.”
During his time at the studio, Wong worked on classic live-action films like 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, 1956’s Around the World In 80 Days, 1959’s Rio Bravo, 1962’s The Music Man and 1969’s The Wild Bunch. He said the creative process was vastly different than that of Disney, and that he especially liked working on adventure films.
“When I went into Warner, I found that it was quite interesting; although I didn’t like the people as well, the picture, from the production end, was interesting,” he explained. “Maybe you worked on a picture for a month or two months, and then the next picture would have an entirely different atmosphere. I loved working on westerns and pirate pictures—colorful and exciting. I loved those things, I loved action stuff.” Wong retired from Warner Bros in 1968.
4. He Also Designed Hallmark Cards & Worked In Mediums Like Painting & Kite-Making
In addition to his film and animation career, Wong worked in a variety of different art forms. He designed Hallmark Christmas cards during his time at Warner Bros, and several of his designs would become best-sellers. One, in particular, would go on to sell over a million cards. “We would go into the department stores, my sister and I would go, and we’d find his album and always put it on top where people would see it!” said Wong’s youngest daughter Kim.
Wong was an avid painter throughout his life, with some of his most notable works being 1939’s Fire, 1942’s Reclining Nude, and East and West, both of which were painted in 1984. The first solo exhibition of Wong’s artwork, Mid-Century Mandarin: The Clay Canvasses of Tyrus Wong, was organized by the Museum of California Design in 2004. It consisted mainly of his paintings on dinnerware, which were done in the 1940s and 50s.
According to Kollaboration, Wong also took up kite-making. Jokingly inspired by his wife Ruth, who told him to “go fly a kite” one day, Wong read up on how to construct them and eventually became an expert. As he got older, he would go down to the beach near his home and fly a kite at least once a month. Wong slowed down his artistic output starting in 1980, so that he could care for his ailing wife. CBS News reports that he watched over her until her death in 1995.
5. He Was Inducted Into the Disney Legends Program In 2001 & Remains an Asian American Icon
In 2001, Wong was named a Disney Legend, which is bestowed by the Walt Disney Company for outstanding contributions to the arts. “It’s hard to imagine a world of animation without the inspirational works of Tyrus Wong,” said Walt Disney Archives Director Becky Cline. “Through his delicate and sophisticated creations—from pastels and watercolors to complex and colorful kites—Tyrus’ art helped to shape and inspire numerous projects and artists during his lifetime. He was a true legend of the craft–- an artist who was bound only by the limits of his own imagination.”
Wong was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the San Diego Asian Film Festival in 2015, and was the focus of the 2017 documentary Tyrus, which detailed his influential career. He died on December 30, 2016, at the age of 106. After his death, Cline released a statement on behalf of Disney, stating: “We are deeply saddened to hear of Tyrus’ passing, but take solace in knowing that his art will forever remain a pillar of creativity to help inspire future generations.”