Bambi artist, 104, has show in NYC

Updated: 2015-04-03 06:07

By NIU YUE in New York(China Daily USA)

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Bambi artist, 104, has show in NYC

Water to Paper, Paint to Sky, The Art of Tyrus Wong is on exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York through Sept 13. HONG XIAO / FOR CHINA DAILY

Is it really true that less is more? Just ask someone who's more than a century old.

"I love art. I have learned if you put down just what is necessary to make a point, you will have a great painting. If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing," said artist Tyrus Wong, who has stuck to this minimalist ideal in a maximal career spanning eight decades.

Tyrus Wong, at the age 104, is the oldest Chinese-American artist alive today.

Best known for its work for the iconic Disney classic Bambi, Wong is also a muralist, lithographer, calligrapher, pre-production film illustrator and kite-maker.

A retrospective of Tyrus Wong's career from the 1920s to the 2000s — Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong — is on display at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan though September. The show had its debut at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco in 2013.

The exhibition features highlights from his extensive body of work, including paintings for Bambi, murals, commercial greeting cards, magazine covers, toys, hand-painted ceramics, works on paper and some of his latest kite creations.

Emigrating from TaiShan, China, at the age of 9 with his father, leaving behind his mother and sister, never to see them again, Wong arrived in California in 1920.

Wong's father was an educated man and recognized his son's artistic talent, insisting that he practice Chinese painting and calligraphy daily.

Studying traditional Western painting and drawing in school, Wong's early watercolors, accented by bold calligraphic brush strokes, showed the first signs of his bridging the two great artistic styles.

Wong's career took off in 1938 when his landscape paintings caught the eye of Walt Disney, who wanted the look for the world of the animated film Bambi. Inspired by Chinese painting, instead of including extensive detail, Wong used watercolors and pastels to evoke forest scenes with simple strokes of color and an emphasis on light and shadow.

"I tried to keep it very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest," Wong explained.

"It's the forest of your dreams, and the forest you experience, rather than the forest you actually see. And that's very much the aesthetic in Chinese landscape paintings," said Charles Solomon, an animation historian.

After Disney, Wong headed to Warner Bros, where he painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of films, including Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Never letting up even after retiring in 1968, Wong turned his attention to designing and making kites. His designs, including a multi-colored 100-foot centipede, flocks of swallows and pandas, are showcased at the MOCA exhibit.

"People admire his work because of Bambi, but Bambi was just a really small portion of his life," his youngest daughter, Kim Wong, said in an interview.

Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong, is the first full-scale retrospective of Wong's work in New York and is also part of the celebration of MOCA's 35th anniversary.

The show "optimizes what MOCA is all about," said MOCA president Nancy Yao Maasbach. "As a museum, we want to capture the living history of Chinese in America and his work displays his deep connection with Chinese culture and Chinese identity."

Hong Xiao in New York contributed to this story.

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