By Lennie Bennett
Times Art Critic
When the 11th annual Wildlife and Western Visions Art Show rolls into town Saturday and Sunday, many beloved veteran artists of that genre will be on board.
There will also be a new face at the Raymond James Financial Center, where the show is held: David Wang, born and raised in China, former Disney animator. And cowboy artist?
"It's kinda funny," he says during a telephone interview from his home in Orlando.
Wang, 54, is in ways both literal and metaphorical, a wayfarer. He was born, raised and educated in China. He had grown up during Mao Zedong's repressive Cultural Revolution and though a new regime was introducing some reform, Wang says everything, including the arts, was still tightly controlled and he had had little exposure to broad international cultural influences. Still, he was an art teacher and, to his surprise, was awarded a scholarship in 1988 that allowed him a rare opportunity to visit the United States for educational training at the University of Southern California.
"I felt like I had won the lottery," Wang says. Actually, he uses a Chinese expression that he bizarrely describes as a pancake that travels from his forehead to the highway. Somehow that translates into good luck.
The pancake analogy will pop up several times during our conversation.
Wang planned to return home in 1989.
Then the Tiananmen Square protests happened.
"My father told me horrible things, about so much violence just outside our apartment in Beijing. I felt I couldn't go back but the scholarship had run out and I had no money and spoke very bad English. But Father Bush (former President George Bush) allowed Chinese students to stay longer and have work permits."
He drove with a Chinese friend from Los Angeles to Orlando where the Chinese pavilion at Epcot was hiring Chinese to work in the restaurant and gift shop. When the manager learned he was an artist, he started painting T-shirts, which he did for two months and hated it.
"Then another pancake," he says.
He had met someone who worked for Disney animation and arranged for an interview.
"I wasn't confident," Wang says, "but they really liked my portfolio. They hired me as an intern and after three months permanently."
His English improved exponentially. He was well paid. He took art classes and began to paint recreationally.
Life was good.
Until 2004 when Disney closed its animation operation in Orlando.
"It was terrible," Wang says.
He worked briefly for a small animation company but that company folded, too.
Wang had developed a fondness for American Westerns.
"I loved those movies," he says. "Clint Eastwood is my idol. The strong spirits, the romance and history and bravery. The struggle between good and evil. I liked the justice."
He never considered the cowboy life a subject for his art until, jobless, he had the time to take friend and Western painter David Yorke up on an invitation to attend a re-creation of an epic battle between cowboys and Indians.
"It opened my eyes and heart," Wang says. "I thought, 'This is what I need.' It was all so painterly, the colors and costumes."
It was, he says, a pancake.
He's a full-time painter now. He's represented by several galleries, including the Plainsmen Gallery in Clearwater, which organizes the Wildlife and Western Visions show. This is the first time Wang has been invited to attend.
"Maybe my income isn't as good but I'm so happy," Wang says. "It's my dream come true. I hope this pancake is real."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.