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Renowned artist dies at 62


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POSTED: Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Sunday, Peggy Chun's family and an army of friends gathered for an early Thanksgiving and a final goodbye.

More than 200 people passed through Chun's home that day, enjoying a holiday meal, Hawaiian entertainment and a few moments with Chun, as the artist had finally decided it was time to succumb to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease — which she had lived with and battled against for six years.

Chun died at 9:35 last night. She was 62.

Her family said Chun had an end-of-life plan to be implemented when she could no longer effectively communicate with her caregivers.

“;Peggy has always been really proactive about making clear what her wishes are,”; daughter-in-law Kimi Chun said. “;One blessing of having a degenerative disease is being able to plan, and Peggy's very detail-oriented.”;

Cory Lee, Chun's home-care nurse, said, “;It was Peggy's wish to die in as natural a process as could be possible.”; She was kept on the ventilator that had helped her breathe for several years and “;given chemical sedation to allow her heart to give way,”; Lee said,

Chun's husband, Elroy Chun, marked “;Peggy's Thanksgiving fiesta”; Sunday with a comment on her approach to her long illness: “;Her always echoing words, 'I'm living with, not dying from ALS,' epitomize an arduous, courageous effort to achieve a quality of life that we all agree is unparalleled, and which apparently motivated and inspired many, especially with physical challenges, to want to try harder rather than dwell on negativity.”;

Chun was an established watercolor artist when she was diagnosed in 2002 with ALS, the disease that had killed her grandfather, mother and twin sister. In a year, she lost the use of her right hand; a year after that, her left. For another year she could paint with her teeth, then for one more year with a computer program that read her eye movements.

“;Now, due to my inability to blink, my eyes are too dry to paint with my computer,”; Chun said in a statement last year. “;But my creativity knows no bounds.”;

By this time, Chun could communicate only by directing her eyes toward letters on a spelling board.

The many volunteers who helped provide 24-hour care for Chun — they call themselves “;Peg's Legs”; — say they could tell her mind remained active and her spirits high.

Ramsay, a fellow artist and longtime friend, recalled visiting Chun in August. “;We had no trouble communicating,”; she said. “;I just talked to her the way I always have, and I came out feeling good and inspired — as I always have and I always will be when it comes to Peggy.”;

Kimi Chun said her mother-in-law had that effect on everyone.

“;Even though no words are exchanged, everyone can connect to her spirit-to-spirit. That's one of the reasons she's had so many people around her from beginning to end: She has the strongest spirit I know of.”;

In 2003, in a wheelchair a year into the disease, Chun said in an interview: “;I'm happier now than I've ever been. It's been one hell of an adventure after the diagnosis.”;

By late last year, Chun had reached the end-stage, irreversible condition called “;locked in,”; her brain awake but her body no longer capable of any movement.

Still, she made public appearances marking the release of her book, “;The Watercolor Cat”; (Mutual Publishing, 2007), written by one of “;Peg's Legs,”; Shelly Mecum, and filled with Chun's paintings.

  The children's book tracked Chun's illness from the viewpoint of her cat, Boo, and explained how Chun accepted each loss of motor function as a change that brought new texture to her art.

Her final project was a mosaic of Father Damien, made of thousands of tiny squares of paper that were painted by students at Holy Trinity School, according to directions that Chun communicated via her spelling board. Assembled by Chun's friend, Magdalena Hawajska, a painter from Poland, the work was unveiled in March.

Chun was an Oklahoma native who moved to Hawaii in 1969. She won several awards for her art, including the Jean Charlot Award for Excellence in Composition and Design, and was granted commissions for hotels, airlines, theaters and restaurants.

Her murals colored the walls of the recently closed Compadres restaurant in Honolulu, as well as the chain's California and Lahaina locations.

“;Her brushstrokes and technique were impressive, and her details were amazing,”; said artist Kim Taylor Reece, who called Chun “;one of the major contributors to the art community in the last 20 years in Hawaii.”;

But it was her accessibility to the Everyman that Reece calls her greatest contribution. “;Her work has a real appeal to general audiences. Sometimes people are afraid to enter art galleries — they think it's too snooty and they're uncomfortable. Peggy was the great equalizer.”;

Chun is survived by her husband, Elroy Chun; children, Eric Chun and Lesley Streuli; daughter-in-law, Kimi; son-in-law, Stuart Streuli; stepson, Bruce Yong; father, Joe Richard; stepmother, Sara Richard; brothers, J.P., John, Matt, Mike and Peter Richard; sister, Camile Richard Fox; and three grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 5 at Kawaiahao Church. Visitation will begin at 1 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Friends of Peggy Chun, 3115 Alika Ave. Honolulu 86817.