Lessons from eyes of Peggy Chun
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
She can only move her eyes, but that was enough to teach a class of elementary art students a lesson in watercolors and life.
Without once raising a paintbrush or even opening her mouth, Peggy Chun, one of Hawai'i's most celebrated artists, taught some of her youngest fans to paint and live freely.
Up, down, left, right, Chun's eyes move slowly over a computer screen, spelling out words and then sentences on a device called a Spelling Board.
"I enjoyed interacting with them," Chun spelled out, recalling the day last month when 20 or so Waialua Elementary students came to her Nu'uanu home and studio for an art lesson.
"Art breaks down any barriers to communicate," she said.
Chun, known for her nostalgic and whimsical watercolor paintings, is fully paralyzed by ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. After being diagnosed in 2002, Chun slowly lost the use of her dominant hand and began painting with her left hand. In 2004, when her left hand weakened, she began painting with her teeth. She now paints digitally on a computer with her eyes.
When the fourth- and fifth-graders from Elena Vasquez's Visual Art Academy class visited Chun's home on April 15, she used a computer program that picks up the motion of her eyes to communicate. She uses the same computer equipment to paint.
Upon arriving at Chun's home, the students were undaunted by the machinery and medical equipment.
"I thought it was amazing that they were able to make an invention that lets her eyes speak," said James Denzer, 10, after the visit to Chun's home.
James said he was amazed with Chun's dedication to art, even in the face of adversity.
"She's an inspiration," he said.
CLASS'S ART TO BE SOLD
All the artwork created during the four hours the class spent at Chun's home was donated to the Friends of Peggy Chun. The art will be sold during a show starting tomorrow at the Bethel Street Gallery.
All the proceeds will go to defray Chun's medical expenses, which have risen as her disease has progressed.
Vasquez first took her fourth-grade class on a visit to Chun's home last year. Her former students were learning about Lou Gehrig's disease when a schoolchild brought in a newspaper article about the artist. After sending a letter to her, the students were invited for a tour of her home and met the artist.
"The kids learned about the disease and were very much inspired by her art and her positive outlook," Vasquez said.
But last month, when Vasquez took another group of students, the visit was very different. Chun had lost her ability to speak, but this time, she was expected to teach an art lesson.
"What was extraordinary was watching them delve right in with no fear," said Chun.
Seated at tables set up in the foyer of her Nu'uanu home, the students pushed around paint on sheets of parchment as she gave direction and critique.
"She taught us how to control the watercolors," James said.
Chun also challenged the students to relay the concept of light in their paintings — rainbows, underwater scenes, a sliced watermelon and a lemon.
One by one, students would run up to Chun for suggestions and critiques.
"First the lack of inhibitions was very different from working with most adults," she said. "It provided me an opportunity to see shape and color going in a very exciting direction."
Kimi Chun, the artist's daughter-in-law, observed how the students took to her so quickly.
"They were immediately at ease and would go right up to her. It was really neat to see," she said.
After the art lesson, many of the students said they were impressed by Peggy Chun's drive to continue painting even with her disease.
"Even though she is paralyzed and has to rely on everyone else ... , she continues to do what she loves to do," said Gayle Dunn, 10.
Gayle thanked Chun for helping her perfect her painting of a lemon by suggesting she add shadows and depth.
VOLUNTEER HELP 'COOL'
The students were also impressed with the 60 or so people in a volunteer group called Peg's Legs who help Chun at her home in several shifts a day.
"I think it's kind of cool that they help her even if they aren't getting money," said Ciena Jadu, 9.
Colton Truitt, 10, said he likes to see how the volunteers are dedicated to helping Chun keep her passion alive.
"They believe Peggy should teach more kids about painting and that she should keep doing what she loves," he said.
One memorable art lesson Chun taught: how to keep mistakes from getting in the way of finishing a painting.
"When she gave us the lesson about when you make a mistake, how to cover it up, it taught me that in life, when something goes wrong, it doesn't have to ruin your entire life. You can still do what you love," James said.
All of the students said they learned an important lesson from Chun, one that transcends watercolors: Never give up, even when faced with difficult obstacles.
That was the lesson Vasquez was hoping her students would learn from Chun.
"The fact that they can relate their life with her life shows how this really made an impact," she said.
And just by being in Chun's home and learning her craft, the students unknowingly bestowed upon her an invaluable gift.
"They brought such life in here and she has the feeling of passing on a legacy to another generation," said Kimi Chun.
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.