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California Artist Blends Eastern, Western Techniques - 2004-04-01

California artist Tyrus Wong blends Eastern and Western techniques in his paintings and ceramics. The 93-year-old artist has had a long career, and remains active with his current passion, designing and flying kites. He can be seen on the beach in Santa Monica the fourth Saturday of each month, testing his latest multisection creation. Today, he is maneuvering a 27-meter kite shaped like a centipede.

"This isn't the longest one, but it's pretty good for this wind," says Mr. Wong. "So we'll try it and see."

Mr. Wong says kites are an art form like painting or sculpture, but these art objects fly, giving the artist a special feeling of accomplishment. As a Chinese American, he feels a fondness for these airborne works of art. "The Chinese invented the kite, many years ago. Before I was born. And that's a long time ago," he says.

Tyrus Wong was born in Guangdong province in southern China and, in 1919 at the age of nine, he came to the United States with his father. He won a scholarship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and went on to work as an artist for the Disney and Warner Brothers film studios. His lush atmospheric sketches were the basis for the animated feature Bambi. He also drew storyboards, the sketches that directors use to help them frame the action for their movies.

Lisa See, a noted author and longtime friend of the artist, helped assemble a retrospective of Tyrus Wong's work at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. She says he was part of a circle of artists, some Chinese and Japanese American and others Caucasian, who worked in Los Angeles in the 1930s. "And these people were all influencing each other, drawing on Eastern ideas of color and perspective and subject matter, but also using Western technique, Western color, Western perspective as well, this real blend that hadn't been seen before," she says.

Tyrus Wong says, as a student, he was inspired by the paintings of China's Sung Dynasty one thousand years earlier, which he discovered in his local library. "I said, gee, the Chinese have such a great tradition. So when I was through with school on the way home, I used to drop by the library to look at the old Chinese painting. And I found out that they had great paintings during the Sung dynasty," he says. "I tried to mingle the two of them, the East and the West together."

Ms. See says his art features Western themes that are rendered with Asian perspective, line and color. "He did a lot of Asian-themed Christmas cards for companies like Hallmark and all of the rest," she says. "So if you ever get a Christmas card that has some kind of an Asian theme, odds are he did it."

One of the artist's Christmas cards sold one million copies.

Sonia Mak, assistant curator for the museum, says visitors are amazed to see the range of subject matter in the artist's work, from Chinese nature scenes to movie cowboys. She adds that he has played an important role in Los Angeles Chinatown for much of its history, and his life story, like his art, is inspirational. In his early years, he suffered under restrictive U.S. laws aimed at Chinese immigrants and other forms of discrimination.

"But what's so inspiring and what's so interesting about Tyrus is that when he's telling his stories, you would never feel that he has been scarred by the adversity," says Ms. Mak. "And I think it's because of that sense of wonder that he continues to hold so tightly to, and that he imparts to others."

At the beach in Santa Monica, that sense of wonder is evident as Tyrus Wong lays out his kites and then launches them, and admirers gather around him. The retrospective of can be seen at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles Chinatown through June 18.

Scanned images courtesy of the Chinese American Museum