-Writings on Disney History, along with insights on other films, animation, and cartoons
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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Kite Series Part 1" Tyrus Wong: Artist, Kite Master

-This is the first in what should prove to be a three part series centered on the theme of kites. Future posts will feature a look at the Sherman Brothers and Mary Poppins, as well as the blog’s first non Disney piece, on the Peanuts comics of Charles Schulz. 

 Tyrus Wong: Artist, Kite Master        
         Tyrus Wong is older than Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, and Frank Thomas. That’s six of the Nine Old Men, all of whom have passed on. He also beats out Eyvind Earle, Fred Moore, Mel Shaw, Mary Blair, Claude Coats, and Harper Goff (all have passed) to name a few more. Walt Disney was not yet nine years old when Tyrus was born. And this past Saturday afternoon, he flew his kites aside his family in San Francisco’s Presidio.  

         His chair faced east across the grass covered parade ground, his hands delicately maneuvering the string. Across the bay, facing him was Angel Island. The very place where he had been held as a nine year old boy, his first experience with the western world. Today, looking over the Golden Gate, is a building that houses an exhibit celebrating his life and art. Where for the past week, people of all creeds and backgrounds have come to see his work, and where they will continue to do so for the next five months.
Looking out towards Angel Island (Author Photo)

         When we think of the great stylists and inspirational sketch artists who worked for Walt Disney, we’ll conjure images of Gustaf Tenggren, Ken Anderson, Eyvind Earle, and of course Mary Blair among others. But it was Tyrus Wong who can claim to be the first to almost single-handedly dominate a feature film’s aesthetic look and design.

         The film was Bambi, first reaching audiences in 1942, and inspired by Felix Salten’s novel. It is a film wholly unique in the Disney canon of features. It was the first to be driven by an artistic devotion to style. Salten’s writing was a poetic prose, conveying a mystical image of sublime nature. “The story was very, very nice-the feeling-you can almost smell the pine,” says Wong.

         The dream of Bambi on film originally came from live-action director/producer Sidney Franklin. He would approach Walt to produce an animated feature. But, as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston note, “where Sidney Franklin saw poetry, beauty, philosophy…Walt Disney saw an entertaining cast.” Perhaps Tyrus Wong saw both, and was able to draw a line between the poetic and the characteristic, by giving them a world to interact in. “The painting is a poem, and the poem is a painting,” he would say.

         Where those before were painting realistically, Wong left out the millions of little intricacies, “Too much detail! I tried to keep the thing very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” It was a mystical setting, with broad colors, capturing the feeling of the forest. “The mysterious paintings of Ty Wong…would bring the audience into the picture through their own imaginations,” Frank and Ollie would say. His style ended up dictating and influencing that of the entire film.
         Bambi would prove to be Tyrus’ last work at Disney. But he would continue to flourish as a fine artist working both independently and for Warner Brothers. He would retire from there in the late 60’s. But that by no means was the end of his artistic endeavors.

         Suffering from boredom one day, his wife Ruth recommended, “Why don’t you go fly a kite?” Some forty odd years later, Tyrus is now one of the world’s greatest kite masters. He regularly flies kites of his own creation. They range from simpler butterflies and owls that can be joined in flocks, to massive centipedes measuring in the hundreds of feet. These masterpieces of wind driven motion may prove to be his greatest of accomplishments along side his work on Bambi.

         Saturday, August 17, 2013 saw the Family Kite Festival on the Presidio’s massive parade ground. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of kites took to the sky in the southern winds rushing off the Pacific. They were in all shapes, colors, and sizes, from little paper folds with trailing ribbons, to a massive gecko that hovered over the ground’s eastern end. Tyrus, along with friends and family, were nestled on the lawn directly in front of the Walt Disney Family Museum, the producer and host of his celebrated exhibition.

(Author Photos)

         Though the wind waned at first, the trusty Golden Gate gusts arose later and breathed life into a few of Tyrus’ creations. Particularly one gray owl with yellowed eyes climbed well above the other kites, its white edged wings fluttering intensely. As the younger family members wrestled the string, Tyrus guarded and wrapped with the blue spool, quite large with thick roles, it bore his iconic signature along the side in gold lettering. He remained firmly implanted in his trusted brown folding chair, bucket cap on, quietly watching the children fly their own kites, with a soft smile.
Grey Owl, Airborne (Author Photo).
Testing the wind with his trusted handkerchief (Author Photo).

         If you have the opportunity to visit the special exhibition, “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong,” being featured at the Family Museum, be sure to see it. And see it more than once if you can, for this art will require a lifetime of contemplation to fully appreciate. If you do not have the opportunity, make one. Or at least check out the accompanying book for the exhibit (linked below). It is wonderfully written and compiled by the Museum’s own Michael Labrie, and is the closest experience next to actually visiting. Also be sure to follow the upcoming documentary on Tyrus, Brushstrokes in Hollywood, (also linked below). Hopefully this film, currently in postproduction, will have the opportunity to be screened at the Family Museum.
A glimpse at the upper portions of the exhibit hall (Author Photo).

         I will conclude with this extended quotation from Frank and Ollie’s book, “Bambi: The Story and the Film”:

“When asked about his style, Ty said, ‘Halfway between the West and the East- but I can’t help that, I’m born with it.’ He set the color schemes along with the appearance of the forest in painting after painting, hundreds of them, depicting Bambi’s world in an unforgettable way. Here at last was the beauty of Salten’s writing, created not in a script or with character development, but in paintings that captured the poetic feeling that had eluded us for so long.”

Please check out the Special Exhibit at the Museum: 
If you can’t make it, order Michael Labrie’s awesome book:
Also visit the documentary site:

-Labrie, Michael, and Tyrus Wong. Water to Paper, Paint to Sky, The Art of Tyrus Wong. San Francisco: Walt Disney Family Foundation, 2013. Print.
-Salten, Felix. Bambi, A Life in the Woods. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998. Print.
-Thomas, Frank, and Ollie Johnston. Bambi, The Story and the Film. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1990. Print.

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