Brush with art leads retired analyst in new direction

A backroom policy analyst turned artist in residence has been brushing wintery scenes around town for Christmas as a way to fund his upcoming show in Australia.

When Esquimalt’s Richard Wong, 59, retired from his job as a B.C. Environment Ministry policy analyst in charge of ministry contracts, he expected life would ramp down, not up.

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But a sketch and watercolour paint set from his wife in 2010 changed all that. Three years later, he has been offered a six-week residency in Cairns, Australia, to paint endangered species.

“I’m really enjoying it,” Wong said. “I am having the most fun in my life.”

Life and work have come full circle and merged for Wong, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong with his brother and parents in 1955.

Wong earned a master’s degree in public administration through the University of Victoria and, for 25 years in government, gave advice and drafted policy.

Although he loved his work, Wong said, at age 55 his body was telling him it was time to stop.

He retired in 2009, got busy around the house, and then got bored. When his wife asked what he wanted for Christmas in 2010, he said a painting kit. It was a half-hearted desire.

“I have no idea to this day why that came into my head,” Wong said.

For months, he did nothing, then took a beginner watercolour course at a recreation centre.

It didn’t go well. Not yet understanding the concept of watercolour, he inadvertently painted over a part of his creation and erased it.

“I accidentally touched it and it disappeared,” Wong said. “I was so frustrated after that introduction course, I didn’t do anything for months.”

But soon an advertisement for a local Oriental brush course caught his eye. He was sold.

“For quite awhile, I was not sure my stuff was all that great,” Wong said.

His career in the environment ministry influences his subject matter and his heritage draws him to the more airy and subtle Oriental brush stroke. He calls his style minimalist and impressionistic — his paintings capture the “essence” of animals and plants.

In 2012, he showed his first piece and, before he knew it, he was entering art shows and festivals — picking up honourable mentions and, in international competitions, special recognitions, he said.

He applied as an independent artist for a residency in Cairns to paint endangered species from B.C., including the Vancouver Island marmot, western meadow lark, southern resident killer whales, Garry oak trees, the golden paintbrush plant and western blue bird.

When he arrives in Cairns next June, Wong will have a studio in the Tanks Arts Centre, a contemporary arts facility in historical buildings, surrounded by lush botanical gardens. There he will be expected to engage the public in his work and host workshops for youth and adults.

“The objective of the residence is to offer a socially and creatively conducive environment in which artists and scientists can live and work; to attract professional and student artists and scientists from around the world to experience the region and exchange ideas,” the centre’s website says.

Wong will bring about a dozen pieces with him and expects to paint an equal number while in Cairns.

Apart from a small grant, Wong is paying for his own travel and stay by painting home and commercial windows with seasonal scenes. After the holiday season, he’ll move on to other seasonal scenes and themes.

His work can be found at

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