Near the beginning of Pamela Tom’s documentary Tyrus, the painter Tyrus Wong, who died last year at the age of 106, explains that his Chinese name, Gen Yo, translates to something like “Buena Vista” in Spanish. The view from his eyes seems, indeed, to have been beautiful.
Born in Guangdong Province in 1910, he immigrated to California as a boy, living in poverty with his father. He hated school, but loved to draw and had unmistakable talent, so his father borrowed money to send him to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. In the 1930s and ‘40s, he became a major part of a growing Chinese-American artists’ circle in L.A., appeared in gallery shows, painted murals, and did commercial work including charming midcentury greeting card designs for Hallmark. He met with racism, and was hurt and angered by it, but he persevered, married, had kids, flourished.
In outline, this classic American story is inspirational, if familiar. What gives Tom’s film, a No Festival Required offering this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Third Street Theater at Phoenix Center for the Arts, its distinction is that it’s also a showbiz story.
Outside of art circles, Wong is most famous for his brief tenure at Walt Disney Studios, working on 1942’s Bambi. Though he’s simply credited among the rank-and-file “background artists,” it’s now acknowledged by Disney that Wong, with his stunning conceptual paintings, essentially created that film’s unforgettable, Asian-art-influenced dream-like look.
After an unceremonious dismissal from Disney—the company later atoned by declaring him a “Disney Legend”—Wong landed in the art department at Warner Brothers Studios, where he spent a much happier quarter century doing superb production art for movies ranging from Harper to The Wild Bunch to Rebel Without a Cause to The Music Man. Tom shows clips from some of them side-by-side with Wong’s artwork, and makes a solid case that he influenced the look of these films, too.
As cinema, Tyrus is a polished, straightforward biography in the American Masters style, but two factors render it fascinating. First, there’s the highly likable title character, with his matter-of-fact, unpretentious manner. Second, there’s the chance to see his paintings – varied, technically dazzling, energetic, eclectic yet unmistakably the work of a singular vision.
Presented by No Festival Required and sponsored by the Asian Pacific Community in Action (with co-sponsors Sechler CPA PC, General Dentistry of Dr. David Weiss, D.D.S. and Carly’s Bistro), Tyrus plays at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 16, at the Third Street Theater, 1202 N. Third Street (doors open at 12:30 p.m.). Advance tickets are $10 (plus service charge); $12 day of show; $11 for students with ID. Go to nofestivalrequired.wordpress.com for details.
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