1936 – 2004
Bohill Wong wanted to be famous. He said that he wanted to be on the cover of People Magazine, and by the time of his death in 2004, he had achieved national recognition and a reputation as a fine artist. Though he may not have appeared in People, Bohill was followed for possible stories by national publications like Time and Newsweek, receiving considerable press coverage. He was featured on Public Television in a piece about his life as an artist. The piece, which was produced by Marty Ostrow, went on to receive a New England Emmy Award. His work was exhibited in several prestigious Outsider Art galleries, and collected by celebrities and the general public alike. To this day, Wong continues to be a Gateway celebrity and a local favorite.
Bohill’s career as an artist was difficult at times. Originally hailing from Hong Kong, his developmental disability was considered culturally unacceptable. He came to the United States in 1970 at the age of 34 to join the rest of his family, who had emigrated years earlier. Emotionally fragile and woefully displaced, Bohill was found by a social worker in a nursing home, giving away drawings he made on scraps of paper. She thought that Gateway would be a good work program for him, and so it proved to be. Initially, Bohill could only attend Gateway for half days because his ego and self esteem were so damaged. But eventually he became a Gateway star, sought after for commissions. Many of his designs appeared on products sold in the Gateway store.
Bohill used drawing to charm and communicate. He had been drawing his whole life, but when he came to Boston, new elements were added to his traditional subjects of birds, flowers and Chinese opera singers. The animals he drew became anthropomorphized and began to sport bikinis and high heels. In fact, everything he drew wore high heels and fancy dresses, from cups and saucers to toasters, refrigerators, and snakes. Bohill loved to draw “beautiful ladies”, as he called them, with fantastic costumes and hairdos. These ladies were inspired by the streetwalkers he saw wearing couture clothing in the so-called “combat zone” next to Chinatown in Boston.
Bohill was extremely dedicated to his art, which reflected his personal life. Anything from moving to an independent apartment or a trip to the dentist appeared in his work. He had a complex personality, which was manifested in his portrayal of himself: sometimes he appeared in his work as the center of attention, wearing a suit, shoulder bag, and his famous clogs. Other times he appears as an onlooker, a tiny half-figure at the bottom edge of the paper. Bohill oscillated between these two extremes: he could be found singing and dancing publicly, or withdrawn, quietly drawing in a corner.
Perhaps above all else, Wong was something of a goodwill ambassador for Gateway. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and enjoyed making people laugh. He met visiting dignitaries, announcing in his heavily accented English, “I be good to you” or, “You look marvelous, young lady.”
In 1993, Bohill exhibited his first art show at Gateway, titled Snakes in High Heels. This was followed several years later by another solo show, A Passion for Fashion. The reception featured a fashion show with clothing fabricated from his original paintings. These three-dimensional representations of his work were imaginative, fun, and full of whimsy, just like his paintings. Bohill himself modeled slacks and a tie that he had adorned with hand-painted rainbow snakes. When his eggplant skirt, duck hat, and vegetable belt were paraded down the runway in front of dozens of dancing, clapping onlookers, Bohill beamed. He had never seemed so happy or fulfilled.
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