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Working from home is a matter of course for award-winning Queenstown artist BEN HO, although Wanaka Fine Art Gallery consultant MARJORIE COOK discovered he’s equally at home in the natural world.    


Ben Ho and Mary Mai

 Ben Ho and Mary Mai at the National Portrait Gallery.

 Ben Ho’s artworks reveal he is a classically-trained all-rounder and, in truth, he is a man who resists being put in a box or categorized. 

 Ben has lived in New Zealand for 32 years, 12 of them in Queenstown, where he lives with his artist wife Mary Mai and their son.

 The couple are full time artists, painting in a colourful, impressionistic style.

Ben began his art studies in 1978 at the Guangzhou’s Fine Art University, where Mary was also studying.

Guangzhou, a city of about 15 million people, is in the southern China province of Guangdong (also known as Canton).

In former times, Guangzhou was a major silk road port. It has a commercial and trading history spanning at least 2,200 years.

To get a better perspective on the human scale of Ben and Mary’s former home, Guangzhou has a total area of 7434 km2, which is smaller than the entire Queenstown Lakes District area (including Wanaka) of 8719 km2.

To replicate the population density of the Cantonese metropolis, you would have to multiply each of the Queenstown Lakes’ 39,153 residents by 384.


New Growth I 

New Growth I (180 x 240cm oil, $195,000)


New Growth II

New Growth II (180 x 240cm oil on linen canvas, $195,000, ideally sold as a pair with New Growth I)


 Ben was 26 years old when he and Mary arrived in Auckland in 1988.

 “I have lived in New Zealand now longer than I lived in China,’’ Ben laughed.

He doesn’t want to impose a framework or description upon his style, because while he mostly he does “traditional work’’, born from his desire to express his feelings about nature on canvas, some of it is about “putting bread and butter on the table’’, and some of it is “only for myself and not for sale’’.

For Ben, “everything is feeling’’.

“The market might label you with a recognisable style. Then people might see something changing in it. But I don’t care. Putting myself in a box would limit my ability to express my feelings,’’ he said.

Ben began his artistic endeavours as a child, following his father who taught him the traditional Chinese ways of painting in ink on paper.

It was not until he was at high school that he was exposed to Western and Russian traditions of art, at an exhibition featuring old European masters.

“It was interesting to learn from the Western style. I like the light and colour. It is not two dimensional. So I began to study painting in the Western style and I began with drawings and colours.’’

Ben had learned how to draw and sketch birds in the traditional Chinese way from his father and at art school, he began to learn more about figure painting.

He particularly admired the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564) but was equally inspired by modern abstract artists such as Russia’s Wassily Kadinsky (1866-1944) and Britain’s Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

But what he really wanted to do was go out into nature and paint or sketch “plein air’’, in the 19th century French Impressionist tradition. And so Fiordland, despite the prevalence of sandflies, has become his happy place.


The Unimpossible Scene

The Unimpossible Scene, Rees Valley, Queenstown (61 x 91cm unframed oil on linen, $6800).  


My Back Yard

My Back Yard (61 x 91 cm oil, $9200)

Fiordland’s remote south-west forests and mountains probably deserve a special chapter in the history of New Zealand art.

The region has been variously represented as a landscape untouched by change; a romantic, awe-inspiring or a picturesque reminder of passing time; or an idealistic, lost paradise.

The history of Maori people in the area stretches back to 1200 AD. Kati Mamoe, Waitaha and Ngai Tahu people came to hunt moa and collect the prized greenstone, pounamu.

From the late 18thcentury, European explorers and surveyers intent on charting new land began arriving in Milford and Dusky Sounds.

Increasing numbers of European artists, immigrants and tourists entered Fiordland via its gateway at Queenstown and were impressed by the grandeur of features such as Mitre Peak.

While English watercolourist John C Hoyte (1835-1930) gave Fiordland particular attention in 1877, the popularity of his unemotional, picturesque scenes waned as colonialists tuned into the wild, epic romance and awe of the Southern Alps, as painted by John Gully 1890-1888), settler artist William Hodgkins (1833-1898) and others.  

The romance of New Zealand’s landscape, and the stylized portrayal of Maori people as a noble, lost or dying race, persisted as artists were commissioned to paint, draw, design stamps and produce tourist paraphernalia in the hope of encouraging more British settlers to the Antipodes.

Impressionism – a movement with which both Ben and Mary identify –  began in France in the 1860s.

In Otago and Southland, gold was being discovered. A small town began to form in 1862 on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, in the northern corner of what is now New Zealand’s biggest national park, Fiordland.

In Europe, impressionist artists took to plein air painting with enthusiasm and worked outdoors, painting scenes of contemporary life with a rebellious looseness and spontaneity.

It took a couple of decades for the movement to reach New Zealand’s shores. Scottish artist James Nairn (1859-1904) – regarded as the father of New Zealand’s impressionist practice – arrived in New Zealand in the 1890s.

Despite Nairn’s influence, many visiting or resident artists continued to give a stylised romantic treatment to New Zealand’s great outdoors.

Impressionism made small inroads until improvements in mass communication and transport in the first half of the 20thcentury exposed the splendidly isolated New Zealand to more ideas.

Of course, not all immigrants were British. Around 4000 Chinese miners, many of them Cantonese, also arrived in Otago and Southland with gold rush.

When the gold rush moved on in the early 1890s, the miners melted away and Queenstown’s population of 5000 dropped back to a few hundred people.

Ben has not seen evidence of a body of immigrant Chinese art from that time.

“I don’t know if there was any Chinese artist recording in that space. Most people were very poor, had a low education. They were mostly farmers and growers. Only one or two would have been Government officials. They were business men, not artists. So I have not seen any recordings from them,’’ he said.

On his first trip to Fiordland, Ben realised he too had found a special place and a powerful composition of mountains that other paintings had not been showing him.

“The nature just touched me. When you see a photo you don’t see much. It’s a valley or a waterfall. But when you are there – it blew my mind.’’

When he is outdoors, surrounded by nature, Ben believes he can capture his feelings on the canvas better than if he had stayed in his studio.

“When I come home and look at a photo, I will still have some relation with nature . . . But being in nature is a special feeling, away from the world and human civilisation,’’ he said.

Not all of Ben’s Fiordland paintings are large – The Unimpossible Scene (unframed oil on linen, $6800) and My Back Yard (oil, $9200) are both 61 x 91cm and are by no means the largest paintings in the Wanaka Fine Art Gallery – but Ben often feels the need to paint on a large scale to do Fiordland justice.

“I have some big canvasses. Some paintings are 1.8 by 2.4 metres. That gives you the dramatic, powerful scale of things.’’

“Small paintings only give a little bit of the feeling, not that sort of powerful feeling. But I can’t do many big paintings because not many people have a big wall. And you do have to spend a lot more time on them,’’ he laughed.

Ben has found time spent on a painting is not always reflected in the price people are willing to pay for it. He keeps very large paintings for himself, though he too lacks wall space and has to enjoy them one at a time.

 Environmental Series IV (102 x 76 cm oil, $15,000)

Ben is a keen observer of birds so it is not a surprise to learn one of his favourite down-under artists is 19th century Dutch artist and lithographer John Keulemans (1842-1912), who produced the famous New Zealand book Buller’s Birds.

The Wanaka Fine Art Gallery has sold several of Ben’s native bird paintings, but still has a several for visitors to enjoy, including Environmental Series IV and Environmental Series VII (both oils, 102 x 76 cm, $15,000 each).

Ben’s passion for and depth of knowledge of the art of his adopted home, New Zealand, developed after he left China, because this country’s art traditions and influences were not visible when he was studying art.

He has become a firm fan of many New Zealand artists, including leading Christchurch impressionist artist Evelyn Page (1899-1998), and New Zealand’s masters of modernism Colin McCahon (1919-1987) and Ralph Hotere (1931-2013).

Ben has noticed increasing numbers of wealthy Chinese people buying New Zealand art on visits to this country, so he is hopeful that Government-supported cultural exchanges between artists of both nations will evolve in the future.

Three decades after leaving home, Ben says New Zealand’s own art masters are still not largely noted in China, where the influence of Western, European or Russian artists remains strong.

“Of course, China is so big. The population of artists there is more than the New Zealand population.’’

By Lyz Dozzi
18 July 2020

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