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Richard D. Bunkall; Painter and Teacher

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Artist Richard D. Bunkall, who painted brooding urban landscapes and whose struggle with a debilitating illness inspired an episode of a popular television show, died Wednesday at his studio in Pasadena.

He was 45 and died after a five-year struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Bunkall won two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, exhibited in New York and Los Angeles and taught painting for two decades at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, his alma mater.

His determination to keep painting even as he lost the ability to control muscle movement inspired an episode of the CBS-TV show “Touched by an Angel” last year.

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Bunkall was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an irreversible neuromuscular disorder, in 1994 and given two to four years to live.

As his condition worsened, he used a respirator and relied on a motorized wheelchair. As his finger control deteriorated, he had to change the way he held a brush. And when he could no longer stand, he had a platform built to elevate him to the top of the huge canvases he favored.

With the help of an assistant, he continued to paint nearly until his death.

Bunkall never lost his sense of humor about his incapacitating illness, which left three young sons fatherless.

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“If I have to die, at least it has to do with baseball,” Bunkall, a baseball fanatic, said last year of the fatal affliction named for the legendary Yankee first baseman.

Bunkall was born in Pasadena and grew up in Orange County. He was married to Sally Storch Bunkall, a writer and artist.

He studied illustration at the Art Center in the late 1970s, joining its painting faculty in 1983. An instructor in the Foundation Studies Program and Art Center at Night, he was a popular teacher whose classes always had long waiting lists, according to Ramone Munoz, chairman of Foundation Studies.

Bunkall continued to teach until last year, giving up his duties with great regret after deciding that it was time to devote himself to his family and his art.

He produced some of his finest paintings during the last years of his life. His subjects were usually enormous buildings, sometimes recognizable historic structures, such as New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, the focus of one of his most arresting paintings. Called “The Dawn of Man,” it shows the building on its side and was one of several works exhibited a year ago at the Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena.

Inside the haunting edifices Bunkall often would float a whale or a dirigible, “metaphors for the released soul,” art critic Paul J. Karlstrom wrote in an essay accompanying Bunkall’s show.

Martha Williamson, executive producer of “Touched by an Angel,” saw his work at an earlier show at the Mendenhall Gallery and asked to meet him. Coincidentally, Bunkall’s wife and her writing partner, Sally Howell, had been working on a script based on his life.

The result was an episode of the TV show called “Flight of Angels,” written by Ken Lazebnik and aired in February last year. It featured Gregory Harrison and Linda Purl as the Bunkalls.

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The show took some liberties with Bunkall’s story. The TV version had him raging against the disease, coping with a fire that destroyed his work and struggling in his last days between devoting his remaining time to his sons and finishing a painting that could secure their financial future.

The real Bunkall accepted his fate. And there was no devastating fire. But there was a last painting.

For about a month, the artist taped a paintbrush to his hand and focused on a small canvas in the studio attached to his house. In the tradition of baseball players who hang up their gloves when they retire, his final painting showed a picture of a baseball mitt hanging on a wall. Done for his sons, 7-year-old twins John and Henry and 4-year-old George, the work was completed two weeks ago, and Bunkall hung it in his studio three days before he died.

The Mendenhall Gallery, which had been scheduled to close a show of Bunkall’s paintings, photogravures and etchings June 1, is extending its run until June 15.

The artist is survived by his wife and sons, parents Robert and Sarah Bunkall of Laguna Beach, and sisters Cheryl Estes and Susan Brown.

A memorial Mass is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at St. Andrew’s Church, 311 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Contributions may be made to the Richard D. Bunkall Education Fund, P.O. Box 50702, Pasadena, CA 91115.


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