Art Knows No Fear: Tyrus Wong, American Genius

In these difficult times, we at the Equal Justice Society find that Art provides comfort, insight, and inspiration.  Our gala on September 27th will celebrate artists as well as putting young people in the spotlight as we RESIST the madness that surrounds us.  We hope reading about the work of Tyrus Wong will soothe your soul.


Tyrus Wong

Art Knows No Fear: Tyrus Wong, American Genius

“Oh no. I am crying again.”  From my many conversations with friends and allies since the election, I have learned that many of us find ourselves in tears when we hear the latest outrage from our “fellow Americans” whether they be elected officials or the random bigot who feels empowered.

Tears started flowing Friday evening when I chanced upon a PBS American Masters show “Tyrus,” a documentary about the life and work of an American genius (I originally was going to call him a Chinese American genius but we all get to claim the mantle of being Americans!!)  I started watching mid-way through when there seemed to be an allusion to his being in a Japanese American concentration camp. (I use that term instead of internment camp quite deliberately.)  The documentary then goes on to talk about Mr. Wong’s incredible career and life.  At a difficult time in his life when he was supporting his lovely wife and three daughters, he went to work drawing the art for Christmas cards. I thought, “Well, this is certainly strange,” but his work was breathtakingly beautiful.  Each card was more amazing than the last and captured the spirit of the holiday season with an Asian American and often whimsical spirit.

Mr. Wong went to work in Hollywood and did art work for some of the most important movies in history such as Giant, Rebel Without a Cause, and Harper, to name a few. Who knew?  There were frequent references to his artwork in Bambi but that was covered earlier in the documentary. It became clear to me that Mr. Wong had created one of the most memorable animated films of all time, Bambi.

Angel Island vs. Ellis Island

Well, I went back and saw the beginning of the film and began to understand why the film struck such an emotional chord with me.  Mr. Wong was born into poverty in China in 1910.  He and his father came to the USA, the Golden Mountain, in 1919.  Mr. Wong never saw his mother again. I started feeling connected to Chinese Americans in a visceral way remembering how many of my people were separated from kin because of slavery and poverty.

I have been to Angel Island many times and am familiar with its history as a place of arrival for people coming from the East.  Tyrus Wong was separated from his father and kept on Angel Island for a month.  Political cartoons of the time showed Uncle Sam kicking Chinese immigrants off the island and back to China. The documentary stated that US officials did everything they could to keep Chinese people out of this country. I thought of Jeff Sessions and the anti-immigrant white nationalists who relied on the Immigration Act of 1924 which was subtitled the Asian Exclusion Act as a way to Make America White Again. The primary image I have of Ellis Island is from the Godfather II where young Vito Corleone is detained but you have no sense that Italian Americans, who also experienced eugenics based bigotry, were targeted to be sent back home but I could be wrong.

Chinese Americans were relegated to jobs such as working in laundries and being servants. Years ago, I held the view that Asian Americans were beloved by white people. My friend and brother Dale Minami schooled me on the fallacy of this view of Asian Americans as the model minority. This film reinforced the bonds of oppression shared by both communities.  When Tyrus was reunited with his father for a time in Sacramento, he was once again left alone because of his Dad, unable to escape crushing poverty, moved down to LA.  Wong was on his own as a 10-year-old boy who was in the words of the documentary was quite “naughty.”  He went to the movie theater with a white friend. The friend sat in the main section downstairs and Tyrus was told to go upstairs. Hey, we Black folks know all about that move.  “Naughty” Tyrus refused and demanded to have his money returned. When he did and was asked to return the ticket, he tore up the ticket and threw it back at the woman trying to enforce separate but equal in liberal and progressive California.

Asian American Artists in LA: Creating in a Racist Environment

Wong did not like school and convinced his loving father to raise what must have been a fortune during the Great Depression to attend the Otis Art School in LA. Wong was part of a movement of Asian American artists who exhibited their stunning art together. The documentary made the point that at this point in California’s history, Asians were not allowed to immigrate to the USA.  Chinese Americans could not own property!!  They were not allowed to testify against white people.  My alma mater Berkeley Law formerly known as Boalt Hall was named after John Henry Boalt, a notoriously racist man who targeted the Chinese for his venom.  Boalt wanted Chinese removed from California and also was a supporter of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which for the first time explicitly banned a racial group from immigrating to the United States. It laid the groundwork for detention centers, large scale mass deportations of Chinese, and although it was supposed to be temporary, was not repealed until 61 years later in 1943. My sister Betty Hung from Advancing Justice LA informed me about the details of this racist statute.

The art created by Wong and his colleagues was of staggering beauty. One of his Japanese American colleagues Benji Okubo, a gifted sculptor was ultimately put in an American concentration/internment camp during WWII.  He taught art in the camp but once released, he never created art ever again. This makes me think of all the Black people whose creativity and vitality were crushed as a result of racism.


Racism in Hollywood: Hello, Walt Disney

Tyrus Wong at the suggestion of his beloved wife found a job doing illustrations at Disney Studios. He recounts the racism that was prevalent in the 1940s in Hollywood.  He was assigned to do mind numbing, spirit crushing work helping the animation process. In his spare time, he pursued his love of fine art and kept painting.  Disney decided to make a movie of the book Bambi and Wong produced drawings that drew on the sparse clean painting technique that he had perfected over the years. This esthetic was revolutionary and was embraced by his fellow artists as well as the animators at Disney.  Wong was fired before the movie was released and was robbed of the recognition he deserved.  Wong never met Walt Disney, a notorious bigot, and thought his being Chinese might have been the reason.

Elegiac Mood of the Film

I had to stop the documentary multiple times and just broke down and cried. I could not figure out why until at one point in the movie, someone commented that Tyrus Wong’s style was melancholy. Many of his landscapes feature solitary figures in barren landscapes.  At one point, the TV screen was stopped on Mr. Wong’s face as an elder. His face though sweet was filled with sadness. One thought of the experience of many people in this damaged country. He left his home land because of economic pressures. He was separated from his mother and father. He lived for long periods in his life in poverty. He experienced bigotry and the slings and arrows of racism. His potential was thwarted by structural and institutional racism.  Pamela Tom the filmmaker was able to capture his pain in her film. I had not heard of her before but will seek out her work

Art Knows No Fear – Art Heals – Art Elevates Us All

The final takeaway from this exquisite film is that we all desperately need art.  Despite my tears, I was stunned by the beauty Mr. Tyrus Wong was able to create despite all the madness and injustice around him.  In difficult times such as these, art and beauty are a comfort.

Our gala on September 27th will celebrate artists as well as putting young people in the spotlight as we RESIST the madness that surrounds us. We invite you to join us!



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