Ronald Tau Wo Ho was a renowned jewelry artist, a beloved teacher, and an intrepid and passionate traveler. When he died in 2017, just short of 81, he left a distinguished body of his own work and an impressive collection of fine art and craft from around the world. Elements from both are on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale, a rare insight into a creative life.
Co-curator Nancy Loorem Adams was a friend of Ho’s. She wanted this exhibition to be more than a retrospective, to reveal the person behind the work. To achieve that, she and BAM’s chief curator Benedict Heywood included jewelry by artists who influenced and were influenced by Ho, alongside over 20 pieces of his own work. A slide show of his photographs surveys his teaching career and travels. Two installations offer a literal look at Ho’s life. The exhibition opens with a tableau of his living room: furniture and art on loan from his estate, in front of a life-size photomural of the actual room, flanked by textiles from his collection: Miao and Dong tribal jackets from China, and contemporary silk shirts from Thailand. Ho regularly rearranged this room to present the art at its best and to accommodate new acquisitions.
This contrasts with his private sanctum, his jeweler’s studio, where even friends were rarely admitted. Cabinets built by Ho’s father four decades ago have been reconstructed in the gallery. His tools and books are as he arranged them on the workbench and shelves. The studio’s window looked out on a garden; his view is reproduced photographically. A small TV monitor plays the classic American musicals he loved to listen to while he worked.
Ron Ho’s path to jewelry was serendipitous. He started out as a painter; two early oils are in this show. While pursuing his Masters in Art Education at the University of Washington, he took a jewelry class taught by Ramona Solberg. She became a lifelong friend, travel companion, and his single strongest artistic influence. Both artists are known for dramatic, often asymmetrical neck pieces incorporating found objects. One of Ho’s first works, “All Fall Down” was built around a domino and some buttons, gifts from Solberg. The exhibition includes works by Solberg and by Ho’s friends and fellow artists, Kiff Slemmons, Laurie Hall, and Patti Warashina.
Part of a Northwest school of contemporary craft artists focused on narrative work, Solberg encouraged Ho to explore his Chinese heritage. Pieces such as “The Immortals” (1994) and “Shoe Shop” (2007) allude to his family’s heritage, struggles and success. “Borobudur” (1986) and “Xian: Return to the Silk Road” (2005) were inspired by his travels and incorporate found objects from those trips. In 1990, Ho made a series based on chairs: “First Born,” “First Birthday,” and “Vanished Wishes” are meditations on longevity, mortality, and the effect of the AIDS epidemic on his life as a gay man. These and other works are displayed alongside a selection of his found objects; an assortment of the exotic, precious and ordinary, waiting to be incorporated into jewelry.
Concurrent with his jewelry career, Ho taught art for over 30 years, mostly in the Bellevue public schools, winning state and regional awards as an educator. A slide show in the gallery combines images of his students and their work with photos of the artisans he met on his many journeys. This juxtaposition is intentional: Ho brought artifacts from his travels into the classroom and was in turn inspired by the creativity of his students.
“He used objects to teach,” recalls his longtime partner, Peter Olsen. “He didn’t just teach his students how to do art, he taught about art and what makes good design.” While Olsen credits Loorem Adams with conceiving the show and making it happen, he played a key role in guiding the curators through Ho’s collections and personal effects and interpreting artifacts in the show.
“How to represent different aspects of Ron, that was a conversation between Nancy and me,” he says. As a result, this show offers a much deeper look into its subject than a conventional retrospective. For Olsen and Loorem Adams, it’s personal, and they have shared their insights with us.
Ron Ho: A Jeweler’s Tale at the Bellevue Arts Museum through September 15. The exhibition and accompanying book were co-produced by BAM and Northwest Designer Craftsmen. Information at bellevuearts.org and 425-519-0770. A video documentary, Ron Ho: Becoming Chinese, A Jeweler’s Tale, produced by NWDC as part of their Living Treasures series, is on view in the exhibition. Artist Kiff Slemmons will give a lecture on the Northwest narrative jewelry movement on Saturday, August 10 at 4:00 PM at BAM.