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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 8, 2002

Local artist won't let ailment slow her down

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

How much is art like life?

Peggy Chun applies pastel highlights to a watercolor of mangoes. Among the challenges, she says: knowing when you're done. Despite being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in March, Chun shows no signs of slowing down.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Oooooh," says Peggy Chun, pretending to coyly ponder. "About 100 percent."

It is a weekday morning and Chun, one of Hawai'i's best-known artists, is giving a lesson in watercolors.

The life-as-art/art-as-life question is much with her: On March 21, Chun learned she has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The progressive nerve ailment killed her grandfather, her mother and, just after the 40th birthday they shared, her twin sister.

It began as little tremors in her right leg last Christmas. She knew. She didn't want to know. She waited.

"They're not bad. If you weren't afraid of them, you'd kind of enjoy them, like a little tiny massage," she says with trademark humor.

In March, one doctor pooh-poohed her fears. But a second, neurologist James F. Pierce at The Queen's Medical Center, confirmed them. She waited a few days before telling her son, Eric, 30, and her husband, Elroy.

Sitting around the kitchen table in the capacious old Nu'uanu home they have rented for the past 20 years, surrounded by the unimaginable clutter and rococo color that characterizes this warm, welcoming place, they cried.

A benefit art exhibit for Peggy Chun opens tomorrow at Pegge Hopper's Chinatown gallery.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Then Chun, known for her sprawling and light-hearted parties, her skillfully wrought scenes of Hawai'i gardens and flying cows, and her exceptionally generous and warm-hearted nature, set about telling her intimate circle. Word spread.

She spent April and May fielding shocked calls and setting up a treatment plan while keeping up a dizzying schedule — teaching a class at a Big Island retreat with her friends Keola and Nona Beamer, completing a portrait of Mother Marianne Cope for the Sisters of Saint Francis, visiting her father and stepmother in Lawton, Okla.

Within weeks, friends — each fumbling to answer the question, "What can I do?" — determined to put on a benefit art exhibit for her. Neighbor and fellow artist Pegge Hopper is hosting the show at Hopper's Chinatown gallery.

Said Hopper: "I always think about something Cole Porter said: 'My art is not my life, my life is my art. And that's how I feel about Peggy: Her life is her art, and her artwork is simpy part of it."

Before beginning as an artist, Chun was a schoolteacher, a marketeer and saleswoman, a dabbler in decorative crafts. Her sister, Bobbie Segler, was the artist. Then Bobbie died. Chun said, "I woke up one morning in January 1988, and said 'I have to take an art class.' "

A friend, Roger Whitlock, suggested watercolors.

"You'll never look back," he said.

She never has.

'You can't be afraid of it'

The "it" is the paint and the paper, the brush and the water, the little voice that tells you you'll probably get it wrong.

She counsels courage — courage to leave some white space, to splash color liberally around, to see what happens when you forget to wet the paper first.

"The first time you do anything, you get discouraged. Don't give in to that."

Nothing need be permanent: Paint it out. Throw it away and start over. Look at it for a while and try something different.

But first, face your fear and start.

All over the house are reminders of Chun's closely held belief that this is the essence of living. "Do the thing you fear the most and the death of fear is certain" proclaims one scrap of calligraphy taped to a kitchen wall. "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," says another.

When she can't paint anymore, Chun says, she may write a book about how to survive as an artist in business.

"To be a successful artist is facing the fear. It's all fear, fear of the work. You have to need money. Then it's almost a choice of fears. You have to be scared that you're going to end up as a street person," she said. "I could write that because I've done it."

But she was smart enough from the first to price her work in a way that reflected its value. And she got the prices she asked, selling every single watercolor in her first show, in 1990 at the old Croissanterie on Merchant Street.

It was the confirmation that she needed.

'Get to work'

Peggy Chun benefit art exhibit

• Tomorrow through July 20

• Receptions: 6-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

• Pegge Hopper Gallery, 1164 Nu'uanu

• Information: 524-1160

• Donations to a fund to assist with Chun's expenses may be sent to: Friends of Peggy Chun, HomeStreet Bank, 2 S. King Street, Honolulu, HI 96813.

• Also: The Muscular Dystrophy Association assists those affected by neuromuscular disorders, including ALS. 548-0588 or www.mdausa.org.

In painting, this means having the discipline to get into the studio. Not giving in to distractions. Not holding yourself back "until" — until you have time, until you can afford the right supplies, until you know more.

Chun admits that discipline is not her strong point — until she has to have it.

"This is the best time," she says, meaning the final weeks before a show. "You clear the decks. It's just you and the work."

She lives under the ultimate deadline pressure now. No one can say how much longer she'll feel as well as she does. With typical brio, she is tackling the disease on all fronts — taking medication and vitamins, getting herbal treatments, pampering her immune system, exercising, e-mailing others with ALS, employing the resources of the local Muscular Dystrophy Association.

"I see my disease as progressing slowly, if at all," she says, adding wryly, "I'm not in a hurry."

Her leg is prone to buckling and is weak enough at times that she makes use of a cane, but she'll keep her studio in the attic, up a steep flight of stairs, for as long as she can. "Because it's my little haven."

She'll do as she has been doing: working and playing by day, crying at night — from fear, sometimes, but sometimes from joy. She cried hard after the word of her diagnosis got out, she recalls: "I was so overwhelmed at how much support I was getting."

Her paints call to her. She is mentally at work on some pieces for an August showing at the Hawai'i Pacific University gallery — "I have so many ideas, and I have to get them out."

'Go from light to dark'

In painting a natural scene, this means starting with the light colors and working into the darks — a ti plant is splashed with green and yellow, then orange and midnight blue to create the effect of age and shadow.

Chun is working from light to dark now, too.

There is light in the black humor she splashes liberally over the sadness of her friends and family, and her own closely held terror.

She talks of bargaining with God: "Okay, take my right leg. I can live without that. Okay, the left arm, fine. The left leg. Alright, the right arm. But just let me be able to TALK!"

There's not much else she wants to do. She'd like to trek into Haleakala again, to take family and friends to Koke'e. Otherwise, she said, "I'm happy where I am."

Correction: Keola Beamer is hosting an arts retreat with his mother, Nona Beamer, and artist Peggy Chun next month. His name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.