Star-Bulletin Features

Artist Peggy Chun and and the cat of artistic inspiration Sarah in their Nuuanu home.


Despite battling Lou Gehrig’s
disease, Peggy Chun’s humorous
paintings picture a zest for life

By Nancy Arcayna

In Peggy Chun's universe, an octopus serving drinks or wana sporting sunglasses are perfectly normal. Her painting "A Dinner at Seven" shows tourists floating on top of the water with a Maui landscape in the back. Meanwhile, porpoises and fish in the ocean are serving dinner and drinking wine.

"The best known of my silly fish paintings is 'Day Off From the Dairy,' " she said. The painting hosts some curious cows that have ventured out on a snorkeling expedition.

"I could never create a serious underwater painting. The creatures need to be silly ... they need to be having fun," said Chun, whose attempt at painting a serious landscape resulted in floating cows, all because she thought the ones on four legs, on the ground were too boring.

Although she loves creating images of all animals, in situations real or imagined, one of her favorite subjects is her fluffy black cat, Boo.

"Boo in a Bowl," one of her best sellers, can be seen on the pet art wall at the newly open Hawaii Doggie Bakery in Pearlridge. Her most recent project, "Banana patch Heaven," a landscape featuring an old-style house, and of course all of her cats (Boo, Eeeps and Bug) are also on display.

Another series of Chun's paintings, called "Boo and Mo'o" is on view at the Hawaii Pacific University Gallery through Sept. 27. The exhibit houses 22 paintings of Boo chasing a gecko. "If you go right down the wall -- it's like a little cartoon," said Chun, who keeps costumes for the cats around her house. "They have all been good sports and at least worn a set of ears or something."

Chun's light-hearted approach to painting belies personal tragedies.

A painting titled "Boo in a Bowl."

Born in Lawton, Okla., she's been a resident of Honolulu since 1969, when she came to the islands as a high school speech and drama teacher. She never painted until her twin sister Bobbie Segler died in 1987 of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the same debilitating disease with which Chun has been recently diagnosed.

"It was kind of a twin thing, where we would never compete against each other. She was a marvelous painter, a nationally recognized pastel artist," said Chun, who began painting in January 1988. She had not taken an art class since she was 8 but met Gloria Foss, who would become her mentor, during a paper dyeing class at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

"Everything just fell into place. She took me under her wing. She taught me all of the basics about color and temperature," she said.

With a characteristic upbeat attitude, Chun said she isn't afraid of ALS, which prevents brain signals from reaching muscles "so, you think you're going to take a step, but your foot won't go. I'm already a little gimpy in the right leg, but I caught it early. It's such a rare disease, its usually diagnosed as something else first," she said.

There is no cure for the disease, and 50 percent of ALS patients die within 18 months after diagnosis. Ten percent live longer than 10 years.

Chun believes that mental health is what's important in the face of illness and other difficulties. "I have lived a very full life. If you live your life fully, you can go anytime and it's OK. I'm not happy about it but I've never felt better because I'm finally taking care of myself."

She claims that if she had not been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, she would have had a heart attack. "I was always on the run, eating badly and just couldn't say no (to others' demands). Women have so much trouble giving themselves permission to say no. Now I've lost 15 pounds and have really slowed down."

RECENTLY, Chun started working with her late twin's pastels. "My little darling nephew saved them for me after she died."

Chun grew up with seven siblings. And attributes much of her success to her mother. "My mother always encouraged creativity. We would ask her if we could have a carnival in the back yard and she would go out and buy us some lumber," said Chun. 'We lived in the mountains where there were buffalo, longhorn cattle and prairie dogs. She would go into the mountains and get full-on longhorn skulls and she made fabulous spook houses that scared the bejesus out of you. She was so much fun and never stopped any of us from doing anything."

She also inherited a taste for chaos.

"I don't have time to get organized. My mother always said that a clean house is a misspent life. As long as I can find things, that is fine. Artwork lines the walls and two- and three-dimensional pieces clutter any open space.

"I would never vacuum my house every day, not even once a week. When you see the giant dust balls, it's time to suck them up."

When she combs her cats, huge fur balls float over the lawn outside. "They stay there until we mow the lawn," she said. "An artist thinks you can use everything. So I have bits of stuff here and there. It's hard to let go."

Chun had dreamed of having her own studio since she was a little girl. Her studio is located in the attic of her home. "It's a wonderful place. I could stay locked up here for days, reading and painting," she said.

Animal art by Peggy Chun

>> Hawaii Doggie Bakery, Pearlridge Shopping Center Uptown (next to the Disney Store), on view indefinitely. Call 487-7297.

>> "Leaf of Dreams": Works by Peggy Chun, Hawaii Pacific University Art Gallery, through Sept. 27. Call 544-0287.

CHUN WORKS in a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, oil, photography and collage. "Watercolor is most fun. They call it the medium of happy accidents. You want the accidents to look like you did them on purpose.

"People think that watercolor is so hard. It's because when you were in grade school or high school, they gave you cheap paper. You can buy bad brushes and use bad paint, but you need to buy good paper, she said.

And, it seems to run counter to the notion that one must learn to walk before learning to run, but she says drawing skills aren't necessary to begin painting.

"People do a lot of graphic paper transfers of images the secret is in how to paint it. The hardest part is drawing it, creating and designing. Once the drawing is complete, the painting is the icing on the cake."

Chun, who plans to make time for teaching others, has learned over a lifetime that degrees of fear can keep people from achieving their goals.

"Everyone could excel in one area, if they just believed it," she said. "It's amazing how things happen, step by step. If you look back, your life is like a finely woven tapestry, but you can't see it as you are weaving it. It's amazing how it all comes together in the end."

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