Five months have passed since Pat DeMar was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, a paralyzing and fatal illness, and still her hands have not betrayed her.
"The disease takes everything away," she says. "What I can still do, though, is paint."
Her canvas isn't made of paper but of cloth. DeMar paints abstract swirls and fluid lines on vintage tuxedos.
She has learned to hold the paint brush differently to overcome the weakness in her hands, but the illness has not interfered with her deft strokes.
Other activities--walking, driving, cooking a meal--are no longer possible. She speaks with difficulty. She's been told by doctors that she is dying--a prognosis she refuses to accept. She is 32.
It's the painting that gets her up in the morning. To her, it's not a pastime but a passion that she discovered when she was 5 years old.
DeMar's hand-painted tuxedos bring a new twist to formal wear. She typically paints the jackets' lapels, and sometimes the front and backs. Often, she'll adorn the tuxedo with some kind of whimsical decoration.
One of her hottest new creations is a tuxedo garnished with miniature utensils, which she has dubbed "the dinner jacket."
She decorated another tuxedo with seashells on its lapels, a reflection of her love of the ocean. She also created a white tuxedo shirt with shells on the front bib.
"One Texas oil man wanted a tux with oil derricks painted all over it," DeMar says. She obliged.
For Christmas, she'll introduce holiday tuxedos arrayed with miniature toys, ornaments and red chili peppers.
One can see the influence of her favorite artists on the tuxedos. An ivory tuxedo she named after artist Jackson Pollock comes with Pollock-style splatters of inky black paint on the front and down one side of the back. Her love of Oriental art reveals itself in a cream-colored tuxedo with an Oriental woman painted on the front.
"My designs really come from the past," she confesses.
Her customers include top celebrities. Bette Midler bought a tuxedo with multicolored abstract swirls on the lapels. Diana Ross bought a short, white, bolero-style jacket with an abstract design, then called and ordered a skirt to match.
Morgan Fairchild has the so-called rosebud jacket, featuring tiny fabric roses on the lapels and swirling stems on the front. Mick Jagger, Rob Lowe, Paula Abdul and Candy Spelling own DeMar's designs, and Donna Rice bought a pair of her painted earrings.
Most of her customers are women 25 to 50, but men also buy her clothes. Her art-to-wear sells all over the world--without any promotion.
"I don't advertise," DeMar says. "As an artist, I'm kind of a recluse. I just like to paint and get my product out there."
The tuxedos are available to store buyers in garment showrooms in Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago. In Orange County, she sells her line through The Look and Apropos in Fashion Island, Newport Beach, and From Laguna in Laguna Beach. The tuxedos cost from about $300 to $500.
Her partner, Michael Laux, helps her run what has become a $200,000-a-year business, handling all of the production work so that she can design the clothing from her wheelchair.
"He's now my legs," she says. With his assistance, she continues to create a new line of clothing four times a year.
The pair work out of an upstairs studio off Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
Evidence of DeMar's desire to paint, to embellish the ordinary, is everywhere: Painted tuxedos fill a circular rack in the center of the room. In one corner, there's a stack of bracelets she made from hand-painted fiberglass--the same material used to make surfboards.
"They were discontinued--most people don't want bracelets that big," she says.
Her line of aluminum copper earrings hangs on one wall like miniature artworks. DeMar hand-paints each large earring with a colorful abstract design. The earrings have sold at Nordstrom, Bullock's and Macy's.
In addition to painting tuxedos, she decorates baby clothes, shoes, kimonos, hats, T-shirts, chiffon tops and silk skirts with her flowing brushwork.
DeMar and Laux have a factory in El Toro where garments are cut, sewn and made ready for the artist's hand. The vintage tuxedos come from second-hand stores and dealers all over the country.
DeMar has also started painting vintage velvet coats. She decorated one black velvet swing coat with a serpentine design in gold on the lapels and sleeves.
She has been painting clothes for seven years.
"I was working in oil and acrylic, doing large canvases, when a bunch of people started doing hand-painted clothing. It looked so interesting, I started doing it."
She later began manufacturing the clothes to paint on. Only the disease has slowed her down.
"Two years ago, I got sick," she says. "First I started limping, and then I started dropping things."
Doctors first assumed that she had a pinched nerve, but her condition worsened. She could no longer walk. Laux took her to leading neurologists, who made the diagnosis--amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, a degenerative nervous-system disorder.
"It's fatal and not real pretty," DeMar says. Doctors told her there was no hope.
"But we're not giving into that," Laux adds. "We're not subscribing to that diagnosis. There's no acid test for Lou Gehrig's disease."
DeMar has refuted the stark prognosis and now undergoes alternative treatments. She travels to Santa Cruz and Idaho for ancient Chinese medicine, including deep tissue massage and acupressure. The treatments are painful and costly (they are not covered by insurance), but DeMar says she's starting to feel better.
"Five months ago, I could barely talk," she says. "And I couldn't open my hands. Now I've gotten a lot of that back."
An art auction is planned for Nov. 4 at Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach to help pay her medical costs. Prominent artists will donate their work for sale.
In the meantime, DeMar will continue to rise each morning and reach for her paintbrush.
"It's hard on me," she says. "A lot of the business used to be meeting with buyers and finding out what people wanted. Now, I'm a lot more limited.
"What keeps me sane is for me to come here and paint. If I didn't have this, I'd go home and die."