Master Printer Promotes Next Generation Of Artists At New Westchester Gallery
Ben Diep embodied the quintessential immigrant success story before opening Square Pegs Gallery in Hastings-on-Hudson.
BY LAURA JOSEPH MOGIL
PUBLISHED IN WESTCHESTER MAGAZINE, MARCH 2016
You could say master printer Ben Diep embodies the classic immigrant success story, but that would only scratch the surface of his life. Growing up in war-torn South Vietnam, Diep could hardly have imagined being where he is today, staring out onto the Hudson River and the cliffs of the Palisades from the fourth-story deck of his Hastings residence. Three stories beneath his feet are the offices of Color Space Imaging, where Diep makes fine-art prints for some of the most famous photographers in the world, and the newly opened Square Peg Gallery, where he and wife Mairead Daly-Diep showcase the work of deserving yet undiscovered artists.
Diep, 53, has quite the reputation in the art world, having printed photographs for two acclaimed Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibitions. He’s also done printing for galleries and museums around the globe, including the Royal Academy of Arts in London, CaixaForum in Madrid and Barcelona, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium.
Diep himself wanted to be an artist as far back as he can remember. The second of six children, he was born in Phan Rang, a small coastal village a few hours outside of Saigon. When he was 8, his family moved to the capital so that his father could assume a false identity and escape having to serve in the national army. It was there that Diep became immersed in drawing Chinese cartoons. He asked his parents to send him to art school, but they refused. He recalls them telling him: “Artists are poor, and they die alone and unknown.”
Diep continued to draw on his own, but there were bigger problems looming. “War was always on our minds,” he says. “We were told not to go on the street and pick up anything suspicious. Even a matchbox could be a bomb.”
In 1975, the North Vietnamese took over and imposed Communist rule on South Vietnam. Diep’s family had acquired US entry visas but couldn’t decide if they should stay put or flee. On the day Saigon fell, Diep remembers his father taking him on the back of his Vespa to the US Embassy, to see if they could be evacuated via helicopter, but it was too crowded at the gate.
Hastened by the death of their eldest son—who died during forced hard labor—Diep’s parents finally decided the family needed to leave Vietnam. It required four attempts, including one foiled effort that landed the entire family in jail, before they managed to escape.
Arriving in the States in 1979, with $200 to their name, Diep’s family settled into the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. Because his father had gotten Diep a fake birth certificate stating he was four years younger than he actually was (so Diep could avoid being drafted into the military back in South Vietnam), he was placed several years behind in public school. On the weekends, he would help out his father, who’d gotten work as a dishwasher, often putting in 18-hour days.
He says his salvation was tennis. “After school, most kids would go play pinball or basketball. But I went out and bought a pair of sneakers and a wooden racket and started hitting tennis balls against the wall at the local public court.” It was there he met Alex Rodriguez, a construction worker, graphic designer, and tennis coach who took him on as his protégé. Twice a week, Rodriguez would take Diep out to New Jersey, where he’d hit balls with him in the time between giving private lessons.
Within two months, Diep became good. Really good. He caught the attention of Danny Parker, a local tennis coach who got Diep into the New York Junior Tennis League. Unbeknownst to Diep, Parker also submitted an application for a National Junior Tennis League scholarship (through the Arthur Ashe Educational Guidance Program) on Diep’s behalf. As a result, he received a four-year scholarship to Connecticut's prestigious Suffield Academy.
Ben Diep (left) with his late brother, Hui, in Phan Rang.
At Suffield, Diep applied himself to his academics and tennis, yet his true love was art. It was there that he met his mentor, Mario Vincenti, the head of the art department at Suffield. Outside of the classroom, Diep studied informally with Vincenti over the entire four years at Suffield, producing a large body of work that focused on Impressionist and abstract drawings and paintings. Of the tutelage, Diep says, “Mario didn’t tell me what to do; he taught me how to see.”
Impressed with his artistic aptitude, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) offered Diep a full scholarship, accepting him as a 22-year-old freshman in 1985. However, before he could even finish his first year, he got a phone call from his father, who’d moved on from his dishwashing job to work at a photo lab that he wound up managing before long. His dad had decided to open up his own lab and wanted Diep to come work for him.
Thus started the next chapter in Diep’s life story. He soon took over managing his father’s business and work became all consuming, leaving little time for his dreams of painting. On the other hand, Diep says, “I wasn’t just doing work; I was learning and meeting all the great artists who came through our doors.” The shop developed a reputation for its attention to nuances and details and was also in demand by fashion houses, modeling agencies, magazines, and architectural photographers.
Diep met Mairead while traveling through Europe in 1989, after attending the opening of a museum show in Cologne, Germany, that he had printed for LIFE magazine photographer Abe Frajndlich. The two were staying at the same Paris hotel, and he helped her move her heavy suitcase upstairs to her room.
The next day they met again and spent the day walking from museum to museum. “I had no background in art but was very interested in learning,” says Daly-Diep, a Dublin native who, in addition to helping Diep run the gallery, works at Family to Family, a Hastings-based nonprofit. “I loved Ben’s openness and willingness to share his thoughts and his knowledge,” she adds.
After a long-distance relationship and some rocky twists and turns, the two decided they couldn’t live without each other. They married in 1997 and had two children—Luke, born in 2000, and Kate, in 2003. The couple moved from Manhattan’s West Side to Scarsdale in 2004, the same year Diep opened his own photo lab in Manhattan.
“Ben became known for having an incredible eye for color, and that is why so many artists sought him out,” says Daly-Diep. “Even more important than that is his ability to take things a step further. An artist may have taken his photograph to a certain level but not see the next step. Ben has a gift for seeing the potential in things.”
While his business was successful, rent in Manhattan was skyrocketing, and the taxes in Scarsdale continued to soar. Searching online for real estate back in 2009, Diep found his future home and office, in the form of a 1920s six story, mixed-use brick building in Hastings. Recalling his first visit to the property, Diep says, “The whole area was messy and dirty, and the building needed to be completely gutted. But, as I said to Mairead, you can’t beat this view of the river.”
Opening up a gallery in the building was always part of the couple’s plan. “My relationship with my clients—the artists I’ve worked with—has been a collaboration. At my studio in the city, there was a constant dialog, an ongoing exchange of ideas,” says Diep. The gallery, which was launched in the fall of 2015 (now open by appointment and for special events, including the River Arts Studio Tour, April 16 and 17), gave Diep a place for the conversation to continue. The couple is also collaborating with the Rafius Fane Gallery in Boston and plans to pursue additional gallery collaborations.
“The goal of the gallery is to have people begin to converse in a different way or have a discussion that they may not have had before,” says Diep. “We also want to expose unknown artists we think are worthy of attention, as much and as broadly as we can.”
Laura Mogil is a freelance writer residing in Briarcliff Manor. She is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and Westchester Home and has written for the New York Times and Hudson Valley Magazine. You can read her blog at www.inspiredchef.net.