Seeing Stories: The jewelry of Ron Ho

Susan Kunimatsu January 15, 2007 0

For 40 years, Ron Ho has made necklaces, each an exquisite story in silver. A dragon boat bearing a palm tree and a portrait on a shard of pottery tells of a picture bride’s passage to a foreign land. A whimsical elephant with a load of carnelian beads is the memoir of a journey with an old friend. A steamer of dim sum on a chair recalls a memorable meal.

Now his stories have been gathered into an exhibit, “Dim Sum at the On-On Tea Room: The Jewelry of Ron Ho” at the Bellevue Arts Museum. The exhibit catalog is the first book to document the work of this acclaimed Seattle jewelry artist and educator.

Ho was born and raised in Honolulu, the third generation of a Chinese family that had immigrated to Hawaii in the late 19th century. He followed his older sister to the mainland to attend Pacific Lutheran College (now University) in Tacoma. He was interested in an art career, but his parents, like many Asians families, saw more security in a profession. Ho took a bachelor’s degree in art education and taught briefly in Hoquiam before landing a position in the Bellevue school system. He simultaneously embarked on an art career as a painter, and studied for a master’s in art education at the University of Washington.

In the summer of 1968, needing one last art course to complete his degree, he registered for a jewelry class taught by Ramona Solberg. Serendipitously, he found his medium as an artist and a lifelong mentor and friend. Solberg was a leader in an emerging Northwest school of art jewelry, distinguished by its bold scale, contemporary aesthetic and use of found objects, particularly artifacts from other cultures. Her gift of a domino and three buttons of carved bone became the basis of Ron Ho’s first necklace, and sent his work in the direction that he has continued to the present day.

“When I first started doing jewelry, I was doing casting and making rings with stones and things and that’s what I visualized jewelry as,” he said. “But that’s why that first piece is so important … she gave me those pieces, it all started from that.”

Ho called the piece “All Fall Down” because of the technical challenges he encountered as a beginning metal smith in assembling it. He made it a gift to Solberg and it opens the exhibit.

A world traveler who had lived abroad, Solberg accompanied Ho to Europe in the early 1970s, his first journey outside the United States. Her passion for travel proved infectious, but Ho also felt a more personal yearning.

“I enjoyed [Europe] thoroughly, but I knew I had to go to Asia. And when I finally went to Asia in the late ‘70s, that was when I really felt the most comfortable with everything. The art work was really an inspiration to me,” he recalls.

Ho used his summers and a 1978 sabbatical to travel, gathering artifacts to use in his jewelry, as well as an impressive collection of folk art. Necklaces he made in the 1970s incorporate stone charms from Afghanistan, African ivory, ostrich eggshell beads, and Eskimo scrimshaw (incised ivory). But in his jewelry, as in his travels, Ho gravitated toward Asia. “Ancestral Maternal Pi” (1970) is built around a bright green jade pi, a flat donut-shaped carving that that was one of his mother’s treasures. He added a jade flower and a Chinese hair ornament, framing them all as an abstract composition in silver.

“‘Dragon Gate’ [1986] is one of my favorite pieces,” Ho says, “because it does have a story. The carp, who is usually a slow-swimming fish, reaches the top of the falls and, instead of dying like a salmon, turns into a fiery dragon.”

A Chinese cigarette holder of carved ivory forms one gatepost; the lintel is an elaborately constructed silver dragon. An ivory carp, which looks like an antiquity, was in fact carved for Ho by one of his students. This necklace marks his development into a storyteller in metal. More than a collage of found objects, it combines pieces sought out or fabricated to serve a specific narrative.

A series of silver pendants from the early 1990s are Ming dynasty chairs with symbolic objects arranged on their seats, each a tiny tableau illustrating a Chinese tradition or superstition. In “First Birthday” (1990), the straight-backed chair holds a plate of noodles, a Chinese talisman for long life. In “Wedding Tea” (1994), a pair of geese shares the chair with a pair of teacups.

“Geese always mate for life,” Ho explains, “and, of course, at a wedding, the bride serves tea both to her family and her new in-laws.”

With the chair series, he almost completely departs from found objects, fabricating entire pieces from scratch, in silver. “Soil Toil” (1998) tells the story of Ho’s paternal grandfather, Ho Kee Seu, who came from China in 1878, establishing himself as a tenant farmer in Kula, Hawaii. During World War I, he sold his lima bean crop to the U.S. government for two years, each year making $10,000, a fortune that allowed him to buy a house in Honolulu. The beautifully balanced, asymmetrical silver necklace depicts a Chinese-style lattice roof sheltering grandfather’s blue field-worker’s jacket; a pair of barefoot charms, now hung up as if retired; and a bucket of golden lima beans.

Ho’s jewelry makes oral history visible. One aspect of Ho’s history that is not expressly shown in his jewelry is his work as a teacher. For 34 years, he balanced the two careers, teaching full time in elementary, middle and high schools before retiring in 1992. He fondly recalls his students’ creativity and spontaneity as a source of inspiration, but also remembers late nights in the jewelry studio while teaching by day. He apparently succeeded in his dedication to both disciplines, winning national and state-level awards as an art educator.

“I had a lot of art teachers. I remember him,” says Luly Yang, now a successful Seattle clothing designer and retailer. While at Newport High School, she took classes from Ho in several media including jewelry and painting. Although she took art every semester and continued at the University of Washington, Ho was one of only a couple of instructors that made a lasting impression. Yang designs some jewelry along with her clothing line and credits her understanding of the production process to Ho’s teaching.

“I remember him as very soft spoken, a very gentle instructor; inspirational, motivational,” she says. “He has a warm place in my heart.”

In recent years, Ho has continued to travel, mostly in Asia. “Xian- Return to the Silk Route,” “Dunhuang- Return to the Silk Road,” and “Return to Rajasthan- In Memory of Ramona Solberg” (all 2005) are memoirs of these journeys. A row of temple toys, bronze animals on wheels that Ho collected in India, is displayed opposite these pieces.

“I had been to China on the complete Silk Route, and I thought it would be interesting to do something based on that. I ended up thinking about all the animals along that route,” he recalls. “When you go to Dunhuang, you get to ride the camels. And at Xian, they dug up all those horses in the tombs.”

These animal forms are some of the most dynamic of Ho’s compositions: the galloping horses of Xian, the laughing camel of Dunhuang. “Return to Rajasthan,” an elephant with wheels, like the toys, was completed the night that Ramona Solberg died last year, a tribute to their long journey as friends.

“I’ve enjoyed both being an artist as well as traveling. But after Ramona passed away, I also started reexamining myself and thinking. This year, I’m going to be 70 and if I’m lucky, I’ll have 10 good years before maybe my eyes might fail … Jewelry is such an intensive kind of work. And so I think I’d better spend more time in the studio.”

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