Steadying his right elbow on his left wrist, Richard Bunkall dips a long, thin brush into umber paint and applies it to the big canvas. Then he backs off in his motorized chair--taking care not to run over William, the faithful golden retriever always at his side--and scrutinizes his painting.
The artist is facing a deadline, having promised 10 new pieces for an exhibit opening this week at the Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena. He smiles and notes that “the show is the 28th, which means I finish everything on the 27th--late in the day on the 27th or early on the 28th.”
It is not a matter of procrastination but of physical limitations. At 44, Bunkall is being ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a rare, progressive and invariably fatal disorder marked by muscular degeneration.
The painting before him is “The Dawn of Man,” a 5-by-8-foot work with New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building as its focal point. One wonders why the building is on its side, but Bunkall’s work is not easy to interpret. He does not paint the New York or Paris we know.
His urban landscapes are hauntingly provocative, and they are vast.
“I like working large,” he says, “and it’s easier for me to work large now, to do large strokes and not have to do little details. Luckily for me, that wasn’t part of my deal anyway.”
Until the spring of 1993, life was good for the artist, who was born in Pasadena and reared in Orange County. There were trips to Paris and New York with his artist-writer wife, Sally Storch Bunkall, and outings with their toddler twins, John and Henry. He’d been recognized with two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, had exhibited in Los Angeles and New York and taught painting at his alma mater, the Art Center College of Design.
But that June, he remembers walking out of the airy studio behind his home in Pasadena and “feeling just a little limp in my left foot.” The sensation went away, then recurred. “I went four or five months just thinking I have this funny little limp.”
Because it persisted, that October he had an MRI. “They didn’t find anything. We sort of let it go” until March 1994, when he was diagnosed.
“It was like a bad movie,” says Sally, who was eight months pregnant with their third son, George. “The doctor said, ‘I’m afraid I have some really bad news for you.’
“We knew to start crying and hold each other.”
The prognosis: two to four years to live.
“It’s been almost four years,” Richard says matter-of-factly. “I have a nice slow version. It takes weeks, if not months, for me to feel progression. I don’t walk anymore. I don’t transfer anymore [from his motorized chair to the hospital bed placed in a studio corner for rest breaks].”
But he has never stopped painting, although he now paints from the chair and, for the last two months, tethered to a respirator device with a flexible tube that curves over his head, held in place by straps and clamped onto his nose.
“It breathes for me,” he explains. “It forces air in.”
Because his work is very architectural, he now relies on an assistant, Sue Mutter.
“She draws straight lines for me, moves the paintings up and down, adds paint to the palette, helps me down to rest, gets me up, brings me lunch. I couldn’t work without her being here.”
As his disease has progressed, he has adapted. Where once he held his brush between thumb and forefinger, he now positions it between his forefinger and middle finger, the only one that is still working right. When he could no longer stand to reach the tops of his paintings, he and gallery owner Ted Mendenhall hit on the idea of building a platform onto which Richard could drive his chair.
Richard thought that was a great solution until one day when his mother-in-law visited.
“She looks at me funny and says, ‘Why don’t you just turn your paintings upside down?’ I felt like such an idiot because there’s very little I can’t paint upside down. It’s also true that the tops of the paintings generally have less going on. Most of the activity happens in the lower part.”
Since the onset of his illness, he has asked himself, “Are these paintings suffering?” and is satisfied that his work has not been compromised. “It just all takes more effort. I probably would have had to quit painting six months ago if my left arm hadn’t stayed stronger than my right.” With his chair parallel to the canvas, he sometimes uses his knee to hold back the canvas. “I work top to bottom so I don’t always have wet paint on my knee.”
The studio--which has become an extension of the house, with a television, shelves of favorite books and classical CDs--is a cheerful place. Every Thursday night, the Bunkalls’ closest friends gather here and, Sally says, “we have a party.”
Death and dying are realities that are openly discussed; Richard is not one to feel sorry for himself. His sense of humor remains gloriously intact. A rabid baseball fan, he told Sally three days after his diagnosis: “If I have to die, at least it has to do with baseball.”
He is philosophical: “I just believe, I guess, some things are just the way they’re supposed to be.” Yes, he hates this disease and thinks about “all the things I want to do. I’m just going to do as much as I can as long as I can.” For now, that means 10-hour workdays, broken by rest periods.
Awhile back, Martha Williamson, executive producer of TV’s “Touched by an Angel,” saw his work at the Mendenhall Gallery and asked to meet him. As it happened, Sally and her writing partner, Sally Howell, had been working on a script of Richard’s life. They began thinking, and Williamson began thinking. . . .
Sunday at 8 p.m., “Flight of Angels,” a series episode inspired by Richard’s life and work, will air on CBS with Gregory Harrison and Linda Purl as Richard and Sally. It opens with supervising angel Della Reese telling fellow angel John Dye, “This is not a man who will go gently,” to which Dye replies, “I never knew a great artist who did.”
This being television, “inspired by” is the operative phrase. “It can’t just be a nice story,” explains Sally. “It needs conflict.” So there is the TV Richard, denying the disease. There is a fictitious fire in his studio, destroying his work. And there is a choice to be made between devoting his last days to his sons or securing their financial future by finishing a painting.
“They wanted me to be short with my children,” says Richard, but he balked at that. “I probably should be sometimes, but I just love it when they come in” and interrupt his painting, George wiggling on his lap and ringing the bike bell on his chair. For the story’s sake, Sally says, “they wanted to have him snapping at them. I’d say, ‘Richard doesn’t do that.’ I’ve never seen anyone as gentle and as wonderful with his children.”
In the show, Richard says, he chooses his kids over his painting, and “God finishes the painting. That’s Hollywood, right?” Still, overall he and Sally are pleased with the show and its sensitivity. “Gregory Harrison’s performance is overwhelming,” says Sally, especially as he had to play the disease, whose progression she has watched for four years, as a rapid killer to fit the hour format.
Ken Lazebnik, who adapted Sally Bunkall and Sally Howell’s story into the screenplay, spent considerable time with Richard and says, “He’s so extraordinary. What amazes me is that he is honest; he never asks for sentiment, yet he doesn’t put up a front braver than one would expect.”
Lazebnik says his own problem was that “they’re both such wonderfully good, nice people. It was hard for purposes of a television drama to take that and have conflict.” The compromise: to “take little mustard seeds of truth and expand them into full-blown conflict. It was very tricky.”
The twins, 6-year-old John and Henry, became a composite named John Henry, who rails against his father’s disease (“We never get to play anymore. I hate his paintings. I hate this stupid disease.”). Lazebnik explains that he combined the characters so that “in years to come, when they watch this, John and Henry won’t feel like that’s [really them] on that screen, being angry.”
William, the golden retriever, also is played by an actor--"adorable,” says Sally, “but half William’s size.” The real William, she says, has put on 40 pounds since Richard became ill. “He doesn’t do anything but lie here” near his master.
Being the subject of a TV show has meant interruptions as Richard works to finish his paintings. Recent visitors included a crew filming a promo for “Touched by an Angel,” possibly to be seen on an “Entertainment Tonight” segment about the show. Sally was hesitant about this (“My husband’s dying and I’m on ‘Entertainment Tonight’?”). Richard just smiles and says, “If it’s happening, let’s party.”
In agreeing to do the show, Richard says, “what I cared most about was that Sally wanted to write. This was an opportunity for her to be working on a TV show.”
The affection between them is palpable. They met in 1977 at the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts, where both were exhibiting. Sally was 23. “I fell in love with his painting,” she recalls, “and thought he’d probably be an 80-year-old man. I saw him and it was too good to be true, that he’d also be young and handsome and wonderful.” They wed in 1981.
When he was diagnosed, they agreed no matter what, they were going to live whatever time he had left to the fullest. He had always wanted to see Chicago’s Wrigley Field, so in June they took the boys. Sally puts on a brave front. Still, tears well in her eyes as she says, “He’s so young, and he has so much to give.”
Richard’s distinctive paintings reflect some of his loves--trains, ships, dirigibles, whales. He may juxtapose any of these where, logically, they don’t belong, then add a classical portico with an inscription from a favorite work, perhaps “Moby Dick” or “Hamlet.” “I like the idea of having a big city block in New York and sticking this big ship on the sidewalk,” he says, “taking the moving object out of its normal setting.
“I like some element of surprise. Unless there’s something a little bit surprising in a painting, it’s a little boring.”
He loves surprising even himself. “Every painting is a little different from how I first conceive it. It takes on a life of its own. Then I start liking it.”
He loves great buildings. The Flatiron Building in lower Manhattan can move him to tears (“It’s embarrassing,” he says). And he’s mad about the Chrysler Building. which predates the Empire State Building. “I love it for the times it represents , the hope of the times, probably the same reason I like Stonehenge or the Gothic cathedrals.
“They were such mind-boggling achievements for the time. I love nature, but I guess I’m most inspired by these unbelievable achievements by man. Over each show, the people get littler, the buildings get bigger.”
He has been creating “The Dawn of Man” for four months. Why does it show the Chrysler Building turned on its side and suspended by cables? Well, suggests Richard, “Say 200 years from now they took the Chrysler Building down and stored it. . . .”
Once he could do two shows a year. Now, it has taken him a year to create the 10 pieces for the upcoming show. If a few don’t sell, that will be fine, he says. It will be nice for his family to have some original Richard Bunkalls.
His next painting? It will be a small oil of son George, from a photograph taken when he was 6 months old. And, oh, yes, he adds, “Another thing I really do want to paint is William.”
Through the years, Richard has made a book for each of his sons in which he has placed some of his favorite things. There are the boys’ early drawings, the floor plan of the Louvre museum, passages from Shakespeare, from “Anna Karenina” and from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a photograph of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, circa 1911. “In a sense,” Sally says, “they are who Richard is. Wouldn’t you love to have something like this from your father?”
Richard considers himself blessed.
“I’ve had a great life--three beautiful children, a wonderful wife. I got to paint, to travel. In the scheme of things, I’m just leaving 20 minutes early.”
Just as his disease is a slow process, so is the boys’ ability to understand that daddy is going to leave them. “It’s hard for them to fully grasp,” Richard says, “but we do talk about me dying and going to heaven.” When he and Henry were discussing ancient Egypt--which fascinates them both and which Richard never got to see--Henry asked, “Don’t you think when you’re an angel God will let you go to Egypt?”
And one day Henry told him, “Daddy, I hope William dies pretty soon, too, so you will still have each other.”
* Richard Bunkall’s recent paintings are at the Mendenhall Gallery, 41 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena, Friday through March 29. A reception for the artist Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. is open to the public. (626) 792-0162.
The “Flight of Angels” episode of “Touched by an Angel” is being shown Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).