I had never heard of artist Tyrus Wong and chances are you haven’t either. Yet his work is instantly recognizable. He created the concept art which inspired the look of Disney’s film Bambi, his plate designs will be familiar to anyone who lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s and his Christmas cards are icons of the holiday season. Why then, you may ask, is Wong not a household name. Tyrus, a documentary from director Pamela Tom, seeks in part to answer that question.
Wong’s incredible story begins in China where he was born. Seeking a better life, his father moved him to California where he spent time in an immigration camp and then lived in abject poverty. His passion for painting and drawing got him through the hard times and his obvious talent inspired his father to borrow the money to send him to art school.
From there it was what Wong calls a combination of hard work and luck that landed him a job at Disney. He went on to illustrate for Warner Brothers before branching out into designing chinaware, cards and even kites. Wong’s work is haunting and mesmerizing and deserves to be remembered and recognized.
Tyrus is a beautiful film that explores the trials of being a minority artist in mid-twentieth century America and more specifically highlights the long overlooked work of Asian American artists. This movie is a delight for lovers of art, lovers of film and students of inequality. It makes one wonder what Wong more could have achieved had he been embraced by a prejudiced system and reminds us of the richness that diversity brings to popular culture. And finally it introduces us to a talent who may not be a household name, but who, as it turns out, we’ve known all along.