He was a Chinese-born American artist born in Taishan, Guangdong, China. In 1920, when he was nine years old, Wong and his father immigrated to the United States, and never again came into contact with his mother and sister. Wong was initially held at the Angel Island Immigration Station, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. There he was separated from his father while he waited to be questioned about his identity. After his release from Angel Island, he and his father initially relocated to Sacramento and later moved to Los Angeles.
While attending Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, Wong's teachers noticed his artistic ability and he received a summer scholarship at the Otis Art Institute. Wong decided to leave junior high for a full-time scholarship at Otis. Wong's father survived on a more modest income, and Wong worked as a janitor at Otis and he would walk for miles to attend classes. During his time at Otis he met the love of his life Ruth Ng Kim and they were soon married. He graduated from Otis in the 1930s and began working in Hollywood.
After graduating from the Otis Art Institute in 1938 and at his wife’s urging he applied and was given a job at the Walt Disney Studios in the animation department. Walt and Director David Hand were preparing for Bambi and once they saw the beautiful and magical production concepts that Wong had been developing he was assigned to head the visual style for the film.
Animation Hall of Fame’s Executive Vice President and Co-founder Nancy Miles recalls; “my first introduction to Tyrus Wong came from his fellow contemporary artist Perce Pearce who started with Disney on Snow White. This was in the 1980’s and Perce had in his portfolio these beautiful vibrant pastels that were done by Tyrus. Strokes of greens, yellow, and brown that hinted of dawn and a forest. Brown strokes that represented deer; yellow black and red that look like anger but I told was fire. He also had greeting cards that had been sent to him by Mr. Wong done in beautiful watercolors. That’s where I learned he was the person responsible for the incredibly beautiful style of Bambi. I believe Perce later donated them to the Library of Congress.”
In 1941 like so many animators and artists he left the Disney Studios during the labor strike after 3 short years. He was immediately hired by Warner Bros. Studios as a designer and production artist for not only animation productions, but also live action productions as well. He worked continuously there for 26 years spanning three decades.
Additionally, over his career as an artist he also contributed to designs for the California Pottery Company Winfield and designed many cards for Hallmark. In his later years Wong lit up the skies around Santa Monica with his beloved world renowned kits. We express our deepest condolences to his family and friends.