The magical world of Tyrus Wong 

click to enlarge Breathtaking works by Tyrus Wong, a former Walt Disney Studios animator who is now 102, are on view in the Presidio. - COURTESY PHOTOS
  • Courtesy photos
  • Breathtaking works by Tyrus Wong, a former Walt Disney Studios animator who is now 102, are on view in the Presidio.

After seeing the dreamy paintings of artist Tyrus Wong, watching "Bambi" will never be the same.

Walt Disney Studios hired Wong in 1938. He was an "inbetweener," doing the tedious job of filling in the movement between drawings done by other animators. When Wong heard "Bambi" was going to be made, he worked on his own time creating sketches of the forest that were inspired by paintings from the Sung Dynasty.

Although Wong's art was not used, the look and feel of his art set the tone for "Bambi." It was far different from the studio's previous work and remains one of the most beautifully animated films ever produced.

"Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong" is on view at the Walt Disney Family Museum. It's an exhibition not to be missed. The show features more than 150 works, including ceramics, greeting cards, murals, paintings and kites.

Wong's watercolors have an ethereal beauty about them that is breathtaking. Some are so small that the museum has provided magnifying glasses so viewers can see the details up close.

"His talent was to always create a whole feeling in a painting," says Michael Labrie, the museum's director of collections. "They say that with his paintings you could smell the pine in the forest."

Wong was 9 years old when he emigrated from China with his father. Although they were poor, his father nurtured Wong's talent by having him paint with water on newspaper that could be dried and reused.

Despite racial discrimination, Wong avidly pursued his art. He worked at Disney Studios three years before being laid off after an animators' strike. He later got a job at Warner Bros. Studio, doing concept art for films like "Rebel Without a Cause." On his own, he produced greeting cards, with some designs selling more than a million copies.

Wong retired in 1968. Now 102, he builds fantastic kites, sending pandas, flocks of birds and other creatures high into the sky (his colorful centipedes stretch 100 feet long). These days, he flies his kites once a month near the Santa Monica pier.

One of the greatest treats of the exhibition is Wong himself, who seems to hold the secret for growing old with joy and grace. There are film clips of him talking about his life and work, and his passion for both is intoxicating.

"I love art: I learn if you put down just what is necessary to make a point, you will have a great painting," Wong says. "If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of 10, you can make your painting sing."

Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong

Where: Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., Presidio, S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except closed Tuesdays; show closes Feb. 3

Tickets: $12 to $20

Contact: (415) 345-6800;

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Cathy Bowman

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