The role of the artist in society is the topic of debate right now, thanks to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech, which was beloved by many, but criticized widely, too. Should knowledge of an artist’s life influence how we feel about his or her art? It’s been a debate for centuries (recent examples include Woody Allen and Roman Polanski). We enjoy learning more about the lives of artists, and this past weekend opened the newspaper to discover stories about the creative genius behind two giants in the canon of children’s storytelling: Margaret Wise Brown and Tyrus Wong.
As the grand centerpiece of the early days of Disney animation, Bambi is a movie we inevitably watch with our kids even knowing that the initial scene involves the upsetting death of Bambi’s mother. (Common Sense recommends the classic film for children 5+). The artist responsible for the gorgeous backgrounds of the pioneer film, Tyrus Wong, died recently at the age of 106 and the New York Times featured a story over the weekend about the his remarkable life. As a Chinese-American artist, a son of immigrants, Wong lived a productive life as an artist and was named a Disney Legend in 2001. His unusual and colorfully expressive style was influenced by Song dynasty landscape painting.
The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon were both penned by Margaret Wise Brown. These two books have been read countless times at bedtime in our home, but we knew little about Brown herself, and enjoyed reading about a recent biography chronicling her colorful, short life. A daughter of privilege (she came from a patrician family with three relatives who ran for vice president), Brown led a vibrant life (reportedly bisexual, she had many lovers and was said to dislike children). The first draft of her most famous book was penned on the back of a ski resort lift receipt, dashed off in a burst of athletic inspiration. She died suddenly from a blood clot at the age of 42, leaving us to wonder what else she might have dreamed up for us had she lived as long as the remarkable Tyrus Wong.