Ron Ho was a cultural explorer who used his keen eye for beauty and design to create exquisite jewelry resonant with narrative and poetry. Like a Marco Polo of jewelry art, he traveled the world, especially Asia, and wove the artifacts and aesthetics he foraged on those travels into jewelry that sometimes referenced his own Chinese heritage, and always celebrated the quotidian beauty and joy he found everywhere he went.
Ron Tau Wo Ho, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most beloved artists, died in 2017 at age eighty. During his lifetime his work was in constant demand by collectors and museums. He was a direct descendant of a rich jewelrymaking legacy that for decades revolved around a legendary jewelry program at the University of Washington. Ho was an enthusiastic collector of folk art, ethnic jewelry and museum-quality textiles, and a career public school art teacher. All aspects of his remarkable life are wonderfully presented in “Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale,” at Bellevue Arts Museum.
The exhibition is co-curated by Benedict Heywood, BAM’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, and Nancy Loorem Adams, Vice President of Northwest Designer Craftsmen, and presented by the museum and Northwest Designer Craftsmen. Ho’s life partner, the artist Peter Olsen, also participated, enriching the exhibition by loans of Ho’s folk collections, Ho’s studio and a section of their elegant, folk-art filled living room. Ho’s studio is installed in its entirety, cheerfully cluttered with tools, paints, brushes, strings of beads collected who-knows-where, CDs, and books.
There are twenty-five jewelry pieces made by Ho in the exhibition. Several were made after BAM’s 2006 Ho retrospective, “Dim Sum at the On-On Tea Room: The Jewelry of Ron Ho.” The newer pieces confirm that even in his final years Ho was a master maker whose design skills were undiminished. In 2010 he made Limehouse Blues Revisited, an homage to a 1934 film noir set in London’s Chinatown. The piece was part of a group show and Ho was required to make his piece relate to 1934. Ho managed to create a visual haiku of traditional and stereotypical Chinese imagery, polished with his usual sheen of joy and exuberance.
A more personal neckpiece was Bears Reliquary, 2008. The piece was commissioned by a man in honor of his beloved Malamute dog, named Bear. It incorporates found objects from Tibet, Afghanistan and native Alaskans, as well as felted dog hair. With its bits of carved bone and shards of native tools, the neckpiece suggests cultures living in harmony with nature, despite hardships. It is an extraordinary celebration of the companionship and respect between the dog and his human.
One of the newest pieces in the show is Orchid Dragon Galaxy, a neckpiece of Chinese jade, sandstone carvings, diamonds, and a found porcelain butterfly, all forged and fabricated with silver, like nearly all of Ho’s jewelry. Ho was working on it as he died, and it was finished, in 2018, by his friend, the Seattle jewelry artist Nadine Kariya. In this neckpiece, as in so much of his work, Ho distills traditional Asian design elements into jewelry with compelling cross-cultural references. It is elegant and timeless. It could be the neckpiece for a queen in China, Afghanistan, or anywhere the viewer’s imagination takes her.
There are old favorites, such as First Birthday, 1990, a neckpiece of a forged and fabricated traditional-looking Chinese chair and a platter of noodles with chopsticks. The piece refers to the historic importance of the first-born child in China, and the family’s dreams for his future. Also on display is Borobudur, 1986, a majestic neckpiece of varnished teak, silver and ivory suggesting a ship under full sail heading to points unknown. The piece is named for the famous ninth-century Buddhist temple in Central Java, and it could easily inspire seekers on spiritual or oceanic journeys.
Most pieces are loaned from private collections, though some are from the collection of the Tacoma Art Museum. The earliest pieces date to 1975, when Ho was just beginning to explore his Chinese heritage through art. Born in Hawaii to Chinese immigrants on both sides of the family, Ho attended college in Tacoma, Washington, then embarked on a teaching career in schools in Bellevue, Washington. He was a painter and taught art. But his life changed when he took a class at the University of Washington taught by Ramona Solberg, a towering and highly influential figure in the Pacific Northwest jewelry community. At first Solberg was his mentor, encouraging him to explore his Chinese heritage as a subject for his contemporary jewelrymaking. Later the duo became close friends and travel companions who bargained for folk art and jewelry across several continents.
An excellent documentary on Ho runs continuously in the gallery, and it includes long interludes of Ho talking about his life and his art. There are also three of the elaborate Chinese silk jackets he collected, jewelry made for him by friends, including Solberg, and about twenty-five of the rainbow-colored silk shirts he had custom made when he traveled in Asia. He was an artist who saw beauty everywhere he went, and it delighted him. This exhibition is a worthy tribute to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most singular jewelry artists, and a reminder of how much he is missed.
“Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale” shows May 10 - September 15, 2019 at the Bellevue Arts Museum,
510 Bellevue Way, N.E., Bellevue, Washington 98004. Visit their website at www.bellevuearts.org.
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Robin Updike is a keen, long-time observer of the Pacific Northwest jewelry scene and has interviewed many of the region’s vibrant jewelrymakers for Ornament. Among them is artist Ron Ho, with Updike writing a profile of Ho in advance of his 2006 retrospective at the Bellevue Arts Museum. For this edition, she reviewed a new exhibition on Ho’s life and work at BAM: “I was pleased to discover that the new exhibition does a wonderful job of showing how Ron’s life, family, education, teaching career and friendships all wove together holistically when he made his singular jewelry. Seeing his beautiful collection of silk shirts, a smattering of the folk art treasures he collected around the world, and photos of him with his great friend Ramona Solberg was a lovely reminder of his legacy in the Seattle’s art and jewelry communities.”