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Life Story: Reformer of public space, artist Guy Ngan dies aged 91

A portrait of Guy Ngan taken by his daughter, Liz, on his 80th birthday.

Ngan Kwok Guy, known as Guy Ngan, artist: b Wellington, February 3, 1926; m Jean, 1d, 1s; d Lower Hutt, June 26, 2017, aged 91.

Though many people might not know him by name, many will know Guy Ngan's work. 

Whether it was with work by his own hand or though his tireless efforts to have other artists' displayed in public, Ngan left an indelible mark on the way we experience our cities.

Guy Ngan works on the aluminium Eastern & Central Savings Bank wall mural at one of his Stokes Valley workshops.

The Lower Hutt artist and interior architect dedicated much of his life to changing the way public spaces are viewed New Zealand.

Born in Wellington in 1926, Ngan went to Guangzhou at the age of 2 when his parents moved back to China.

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Geometric Growth, 1974, in Wakefield St, Wellington.

It is likely he would have stayed in Guangzhou had it not been for the Second Sino-Japanese War.

When Guangzhou was bombed in 1938, Ngan's father made hasty arrangements for him and his older brother, Albert, to leave.

The boys travelled unaccompanied to New Zealand by ship and would not see their father again, though their mother would later move back to New Zealand.

The bronze sculpture on the Reserve Bank building in Wellington which Ngan said symbolised the bank's solidarity and strength.

Ngan wanted to be an artist from an early age and attended night classes in wood carving at Wellington Technical College.

A modest man, though determined and independent, Ngan travelled to England to attend Goldsmith's School of Art and was singled out early on as being exceptional by his professors.  

He would later attend the Royal College of Art and the British School in Rome. 

Ngan's 1957 mural on the side of the old Government Print building, now Archives New Zealand, on Thorndon Quay.

A number of scholarships while overseas and multiple national and overseas art awards throughout his career confirmed his talent. 

Exceptional too was his courage to return home, despite opportunities in England, at a time when the prospect of carving out a career in art and design in New Zealand was slim.

He began his professional life as a public works consultant with the Ministry of Works and later joined a private architectural firm.

Ngan at his Stokes Valley home about 1979.

In both posts, Ngan employed his skills to incorporate his own sculptures and the work of other artists into buildings.

As someone who thought about the use of space and the impact of environments on those who use them, his ideas on public art were clearly developed early on.

"I believe that modern buildings should reflect our feelings," he told a newspaper in 1952.

"Up to now, sculpture and carving have usually been put in buildings as an after-thought, but they should have a unity with the buildings and be part of the whole artistic structure." 

In 1970, Ngan decided to concentrate on his own art fulltime.

Well-known within the New Zealand art and design community, he counted the likes of photographer Brian Brake and architect Ron Sang as professional colleagues and friends. 

The walls and shelves at his home in Stokes Valley, which he shared with his wife, Jean, and in which they raised their children Nicolas and Liz, were lined with works by himself and other leading artists.

His work as a public arts consultant had solidified his reputation and he was able to produce a steady stream of commissions for public and private collections.

Practised in painting, drawing and printing, it was his abstract sculptures and murals which became popular with major clients; many of these works remain on display in public spaces.

He considered himself "Pacific Chinese", following the theory that Polynesians originated in Asia. Among other styles and cultures, his work took inspiration from Chinese, Maori and European art and reflected his own background and the nation he lived in. 

Ngan's work was sent around the country with towns and cities from Auckland to Invercargill holding pieces in post offices, civic buildings, apartments and banks. 

Examples of his work in Wellington include the Geometric Growth sculpture opposite the Amora Hotel, the untitled bronze sculpture on the Reserve Bank building, and a concrete relief on the National Archives building in Thorndon.

Ngan also produced works for his home suburb in Lower Hutt. The twisted Two Worms Mating sculpture welcomes people into Stokes Valley on a roundabout, while his Elevating Worms sculpture takes pride of place in the local shopping centre.

From 1976 to 1986 Ngan was director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked to promote New Zealand Art, encouraging businesses and corporations to sponsor and purchase art.

In the 1983 Queen's Birthday Honours he was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to the arts.

When reflecting on the life and work of Ngan, Dowse Art Museum director Courtney Johnston said his contribution to the way New Zealanders experience public spaces was immense.

"When you look around our cities you realise how much of an impact he had. Not just putting art where people could experience it but putting art in public spaces with the belief that it was important."

She thought that as a person of Chinese decent, living in a Pacific nation, his work would become an important reference in conversations around identity.

Ngan's civic and artistic legacy will long be observed from city streets and inside buildings around New Zealand.

A memorial service for Guy Ngan will be held at 10:30am on August 14 at the Wharewaka, 2 Taranaki St, Wellington.

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