She first heard his name in a short film included with the Disney home video Bambi that Tom watched with her young daughter about the making of the 1942 classic. Wong wasn't interviewed in the film, but the other animators spoke of his work with such admiration that Tom knew she had to find and tell the artist's story. She successfully tracked him down in 1998, locating the playful Wong in Los Angeles trying to teach goldfish in his pond to eat at the sound of a bell, and building kites and flying them off the Santa Monica pier.
Tom's mission to make Wong's story as familiar as the beloved children's film that he helped to create, is at the core of her new work-in-progress, the documentary, Tyrus Wong: Brushstrokes in Hollywood.
I'll get the chance to experience some of Wong's magic, when Tom is in town to present some of the artist's story and show excerpts from her documentary at two upcoming events: a fundraiser and dance at Paradiso Restaurant, in Alexandria, Virginia, on January 25 and a "Talk Story" program at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center on H Street, NW, on January 26.
While Wong's culturally-infused art, is largely unknown to the American general public, his Hollywood career spanned more than 30 years and his illustrations appeared in such iconic American films as Rebel without a Cause, Harpers, The Wild Bunch, and PT 109.
He got the job on the Bambi project by taking a bit of a gamble. He was a young artist employed by the Disney studio, but tasked with the entry-level job of finishing off the work of the animators and crafting the "in-between" animations that completed the characters' movements. Wong had learned that studio executives were creating a film from the new novel, Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten. Tom says the young artist read the book and without consulting his supervisor, "took the script and painted all the backgrounds to set the mood, color and the design." His sketches recalled the lush mountain and forest scenes of Sung dynasty landscape paintings. His initiative paid off. Walt Disney, who was looking for something new for the film, was captivated and personally directed that Wong be moved up to an art director position. Today, top animators and illustrators revere Wong's work. Children today are as enchanted by the misty, lyrical brushstrokes of Wong's colorful nature scenes, inspired by his training at Otis College of Art and self-study of Sung Dynasty art and the Chinese alphabet, as they were in 1942. His work has been much admired in a retrospective on view in San Francisco at the Walt Disney Family Museum (Hurry in, the show closes February 2, 2014).
"Look at his Bambi illustrations, they look like Chinese paintings," says Tom. "He wasn't trying to be clever, just himself. What I found remarkable was that he was retaining his Chinese influence." And at a time, she adds, when it was difficult for immigrants to retain their heritage and be accepted as American.
"Now you see a lot of inclusion and diversity in life. For him it could have been a hindrance but it wasn't. He worked in film and fine art. He designed Christmas cards, and painted calligraphy on ceramics that were sold in high end department stores. His work is almost like Chinese-American art that he interpreted, made his, and [made] accessible to everyone else.
"One of the people in my film says what made his (Wong's) work so successful was that it was clearly from another country, but it was accessible and appealing to everyone," she adds.
Born in 1910 Canton, today's Guangshou, China, Tyrus Wong was nine-years old when he and his father immigrated to California. Their month-long detention at Angel Island offered the father and son a glimpse of what lie ahead for them in their new homeland.