In the 1950s, my father brought home a pair of Tyrus Wong watercolors he bought in a downtown art gallery. They were long, elegant images of wistful forest mountain scenes, matted in beige linen and surrounded by black and gold Asian-style frames. Dad loved them.
My mother told him to take them back. But Dad prevailed, and I remember them always hanging in our dining room, a backdrop to so many of our family events.
Wong was a Chinese-born American, an animal lover, painter, animator, muralist, ceramicist and kite-maker. He was one of the few Asians in the behemoth Hollywood studio production system.
Over the next 60 years, Tyrus Wong became famous for his artistic efforts as a set designer and storyboard artist at Disney, Warner Brothers and United Artists. My mom eventually grew to appreciate his work.
He died in 2016 at the age of 106, famously known for, as my dad so astutely twigged, his depiction of wistful forest mountain scenes in the Disney film, “Bambi.”
Enter Yi Cheng
When I met Yi Cheng last month, a local South Pasadena artist, I was immediately reminded of Tyrus Wong’s journey.
Yi is a Shanghai-born naturalized American who, like Wong, has worn several hats in search of artistic expression. He has attended USC, UCLA and NY Foundation for the Arts and has a degree in theatrical set design.
A filmmaker with hundreds of credits and multiple awards, he has been a producer, writer and location scout; and has worked for Disney, Warner Brothers and HBO. Now he is a full-time commissioned artist, creating art in pencil, watercolor, charcoal and oil.
Yi, too, is an animal lover.
When we spoke, Yi told me how Asians are still severely under-represented in Hollywood.
“When I was in film school, my professor told me that white men still dominate the film industry. He hoped things could change soon. When I got the film job a few years ago with Warner Brothers, I noticed that I was one of the few Asians in the crew. Most people were white,” he said. “I felt very lucky that it was my first film job for a big production after looking for a position for five years. Unfortunately, after that job I didn’t receive any calls until two years later. I received a recommendation on my previous work from a colleague who recommended me to Disney for a short-term job.”
Now Yi is on a new path.
Able Family Emerges
Recently, Yi added the title of “founder of a nonprofit” to his credentials.
“My mom had been suffering from depression for a long time, and it especially worsened during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out how to help. I did a lot of research and read how dogs have helped so many people through incredibly tough situations. Some dogs specifically train to be therapy, emotional and physical support for their humans.”
“My mom hadn’t had a dog in a very long time, but I took the leap and adopted a golden retriever. Simba has been my mom’s saving grace. Mom suddenly had a purpose. Now mom gets out of bed in the morning, goes for walks, laughing and cheerful again. I sometimes can’t believe that Simba has helped her in so many ways; they saved each other.”
That’s when Yi decided to form Able Family, a public charity dedicated to pairing people facing various challenges with cherished animal companions.
“I saw first-hand that companion animals are steadfast sources of comfort and joy. With that meaningful connection to Simba, Mom’s empathy, understanding, and well-being were returned. I decided to extend that mission to others.”
Since forming Able Family in December 2022, Yi has reached out to hundreds of people via his more than 500,000 Instagram followers and Nextdoor.com. The local business community has also offered to let him exhibit his artwork at their stores.
“I began posting my art on Nextdoor, which has changed my life since then. This past year I have done hundreds of art pieces for neighbors, friends and families of their fur babies and have built so many amazing connections with people.”
And Nextdoor is where this author comes full circle with Yi.
I replied to his Nextdoor request for help with his nonprofit paperwork, and in return, he offered to do a portrait of our family dog. Gigi is a seven-year-old blue American bully who likes to get dressed up, especially with necklaces. So a dog with a French name, necklaces and drawings mean only one thing – Rose Dawson’s conversation with Jack on the Titanic.
“Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls, wearing this and only this.”
Now we have an original Yi Cheng drawing in the family. As for my dad’s Tyrus Wong watercolors, they reside with my brother in Temecula.