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The Eye by Barbara King

From kitchen cabinet to museum display case

The ever-modest ceramic artist Tyrus Wong chats -- and dishes -- over lunch about the attention being heaped on his plates.

August 12, 2004|Barbara King

He's only minutes late for lunch, but Tyrus Wong is too mannerly to let it go by unremarked. He enters Joe's restaurant in Venice just after noon, a natty, miniature figure passing between tables filled with neighborhood hipsters and nobby Westsiders saddled with all the right retail accessories, his arms extended lightly forward, ready to take both my hands in greeting.

The 405 from his home in Sunland, oh, you can't imagine, what a terrible mess! Before we've even begun to talk about his art, his ceramics, his current exhibition, I'm charmed, as everyone is, I'm told, who encounters the gentle and gentlemanly Tyrus. Call him by his first name, he insists, and he'll call me by mine. Better that way.

There is an air of goodwill and good humor about the Chinese-born artist, a man endlessly amused by life's twists and turns, its fools and follies. His whole face scrunches up in crazy delight at the memory of Joan Crawford's cheapness. "She wanted me to design an original Christmas card for her, but she didn't want to pay the $15! Fifteen dollars!"

And he mustn't forget Errol Flynn, same thing, wanted Tyrus to illustrate his autobiography "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," but Tyrus knew he wouldn't pay either. So no to the both of them.

He laughs so hard he wipes away tears, relating the time when he was commissioned to paint for a brassiere company as a 16-year-old student at Otis College of Art and Design. "The owner said, 'You know what a brassiere is, don't you?' I said, 'Sure I know!' But I didn't have any idea! None!"

He's even amused by the idea that two exhibitions of his work are running concurrently -- and coincidentally -- in L.A.: a retrospective of paintings and drawings at the Chinese American Museum downtown, and the more recently installed "Mid-Century Mandarin: The Clay Canvases of Tyrus Wong" at the Crafts & Folk Art Museum.

Earlier in the week I had seen the show of his "clay canvases" with its curator, Bill Stern of the Museum of California Design -- which organized the ceramics exhibition -- and I was taken not only with the pieces but with Stern's anecdotes about Tyrus, about his almost preternatural youthfulness, his long (it goes without saying) career as an artist, his work doing backdrops and scenic design for Warner Bros. and Disney, his latest preoccupation with making elaborate kites strictly for his own pleasure.

The four dozen or so ceramics at the museum were produced as tableware in the '40s and '50s for Winfield Pottery during California's golden age of commercial pottery, but in their rediscovery by Stern, they emerge, unmistakably, as works of art -- paintings in light, calligraphic style transferred to plates, bowls, teapots.

Could Tyrus Wong possibly stand one more admirer horning in on his time? As it happened, he would be going to the Santa Monica Pier on Sunday afternoon to fly his 80-foot-long centipede kite, and yes, he could meet me for a bite to eat and a conversation.

Abbot Kinney is alive with the brunch brigade sitting in the breeze of back patios, and although the sky is nickel-tinged, it is a lovely day, particularly for Tyrus, who notices the movement of trees outside the window. It'll probably be a fine day on the beach, he imagines, enough wind to lift and carry his pop-art colored creation high and away.

In a couple of months, Tyrus will turn 94. He has a plumelet of shiny white hair, sensitive, animated hands, a persistent twinkle. His nougat-hued skin seems stripped of the harsh epidermis of age, clear and poreless and giving the impression of having a thin coat of varnish over it. Light seems to reflect off his face, giving him the aura of a golden glow.

Were it not for his penchant to laugh so heartily at so much about himself and the world, he would probably be free even of the minute network of crinkles around his eyes -- still strong enough to see without glasses. His ears aren't quite as alert, although with the two hearing aids he wears, nothing much has to be repeated even with the relentless murmur and hum of voices around us. Of course, with all the attention he's had lately, he's getting used to being asked a lot of questions. He can practically finish your inquiry for you before you've ridden your train of thought.

Aside from the gifts he makes each Christmas from recycled containers for his three daughters, these days Tyrus confines his artistry to his kites -- but so absolutely artistic are they that seven of them are displayed in the Crafts & Folk Art Museum along with his decorated tableware.

It is the first time that they've been assembled in one place, and it would appear to be yet another source of amusement to Tyrus that that place is a museum. They were, after all, designed as functional pieces for daily use in the home. One square plate now under glass was pulled from his kitchen cabinet, there "for serving turkey," he says.

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