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June 12, 2003

East meets West in Bradford professor’s art

The dichotomy of Eastern and Western views on ethics and life seems forever a gulf unbridged. But for Pitt-Bradford assistant professor Kong Ho, the two divergent cultures merge in his life, and, hence, in his artwork.

“For years, like many other artists of my generation, I have been content to refer to myself as a bi-cultural artist,” says the Hong Kong native who earned a B.A. in 1985 from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a graduate degree in fine arts at Texas Tech University in 1994. “But I find that this label of who I am as an artist and person is meaningless.”

Rather than seeing art as creating a universal dialogue, something he says is an artificial construction, Ho prefers to see his work as a conglomeration of his experiences moving back and forth between two different worlds, while integrating the conflicts between Eastern and Western cultural influences as an expression of his own uniqueness.

“Life is full of contradictions and so is art,” says the award-winning art professor whose work is on exhibit until June 20 at CP Artspace in Washington, D.C., where he also lectured last week.

Ho’s artwork has been exhibited in more than 70 international and regional venues, including the United Nations General Assembly Building in New York, the Clymer Museum and Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Fine Arts Museum in New Mexico, the Osaka Prefecture University in Japan and the Peking Museum of Art in China.

Prior to coming to Pitt-Bradford in 2001, Ho was an instructor or adjunct faculty member at several universities in Hong Kong as well as an adjunct faculty member at Western Texas College, where he taught printmaking. Ho has taught courses in color theory, photography, watercolor painting, illustration, figure drawing, fine arts and design concepts, among other art disciplines.

“Just as with everything else in life, the images in my art appear to have fluid meanings — even to take on different physical characteristics when one looks carefully at the structure of the work and contemplates the image as a whole. In other words, ‘Things are not what they appear to be,’” he says. “Art is mainly about what you can see. But part of it is about something you cannot see.”

Ho has been traveling regularly between the United States and Hong Kong over the past 10 years, and the everyday-life cultural differences inform his artwork, he says.

“Philosophically, I allow my work to follow the ideology of Taoism. And I have the creative influences of folk religion in Hong Kong, with its images and sounds and smells of the rituals performed at Taoist temples and the pageantry of Chinese holidays and ethnic customs. Many of my personal symbols have evolved from objects I associate with my cultural heritage.”

On the other hand, the cultural freedom, individualistic ideals and sheer vastness of space in the West, along with his 1993 marriage to American ceramic artist Martie Geiger-Ho, have influenced him as well, he says.

“Art in a Suitcase,” a non-chronological video he made of his life experiences, shows how everyday encounters in a foreign environment have served as a catalyst for his artistic pursuits, Ho says. The video was part of a mixed-media exhibition this spring at Laredo Community College in Texas.

According to Ho, the suitcase itself represents his life experience, the clothes inside are his creative ideals and cultural beliefs, and the daily necessities he carries symbolize his thoughts and feelings. Travel tickets are his creative concepts; maps, his artistic dreams and pursuits, and books his artistic expression, experience and knowledge, he says of the video account.

“My new video work is not about creating a narrative story, or even a comparison between two places and cultures,” he says. “Instead, my work is about the possible relationships between images that I have either actually experienced, or I have found and appropriated in my artwork.

“Seeing yourself in a mirror is not understanding yourself. You have to look within. In my life I see order and disorder. Like nature, which shows us great order, nature also shows us a tornado. For me these are always coming together, Yin and Yang, they are in harmony.”

Ho strives to create tension and drama in his art by integrating order and chaos, using a multi-layering of representational imagery drawn from emotions, memories and dreams.

“Many of my paintings may start with order: the order of science, geometrical form, the circle, the spiral, or, since I have lived in cities, high-rise buildings, arranged on my canvas,” he says. “Then I destroy the order, with color, or splashes and brush strokes that cut through part of it, or I have something coming out of the ground. Some people may think the droppings, the splashes, the disorder means the paintings are damaged. But by adding layers and layers of color, and symbolic images that have personal significance to me from my cultural heritage, I am moving between different worlds, and sometimes you see one, sometimes the other. It’s a rendering sometimes I can’t control.

“To know me, art is my statement,” Ho says. “But it is not linear. I am not trying to engage the viewer into agreeing with a particular viewpoint. What I am offering the viewer — and myself — are bits and pieces of visual information that he or she may interpret and experience in the manner that is most stimulating and enjoyable for them.”

For Ho, who has been partially paralyzed by polio since the age of 1, art plays another role.

“I look to see how I fit. Compared to other people I have limitations, my body has limitations. But there is nothing I can do about that.

“My art has been an excellent way to express myself, the bright colors, symbols, images, dreams that allow me freedom from my limitations, and allow me to break through restraints of time and space. Many of my images are symbolic of the desire for freedom.”

Ho also is a proponent of public art. Before immigrating to the United States in 2000, he was on the faculty of the University of Hong Kong, where he founded the Hong Kong Mural Society, a non-profit art organization. He has completed murals at public housing developments and in several public high schools in Hong Kong.

In 2001, Ho joined the faculty of Pitt-Bradford, where he teaches courses in drawing, painting and design; his Mural Design course is the first community-based public art and general education course offered at the Bradford campus.

“The mural is a form of public art that encourages a sense of community. This is very different from teaching painting or design,” Ho says. The collaborative mural completed by last year’s Mural Design class now hangs in Pitt-Bradford’s Fisher Hall, he says.

Ho will apply for U.S. citizenship this fall, although he considers himself an international citizen. He says Bradford is a change from his big-city past, but “living close to nature will definitely affect my future art direction.

“I believe art is for all of us. Whether you have a talent for art or not, you can still appreciate it, and that appreciation can help you realize your creativity and talent in other areas, whatever you do in life.”

Or whatever culture you’re from.

—Peter Hart

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