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Life-Threatening Illness Leads to Legacy of Artwork From Student

May 05, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Bernard Chan, who was headed straight into high finance with no desire to become an artist when he entered Pomona College, is leaving an artistic legacy.

Until five years ago, when he was stricken with a rare heart ailment, Chan thought only of studying economics and entering his family's investment business in Hong Kong. If he thought about art at all, it was only with the conviction that he had no talent.

But because of his illness, Chan began taking art classes when he was forced to drop some of his economics classes.

Now he has produced a book of 32 prints of his paintings. All the proceeds from the book's sale will go into an endowment fund that will benefit minority students.

Headed for Career in Finance

Despite majoring in art, getting high grades in all his art classes, and receiving praise from college officials and teachers, Chan is back on his original track, headed for Hong Kong and finance.

"I may never touch a pen again," said the tall, smiling 23-year-old, who will graduate May 15. "Chinese families don't encourage their sons to get into the arts. Although I enjoy art more than economics, I still want to be in business."

Art Prof. Charles Daugherty called Chan "one of our top students" and said: "I think his work is very creative, and I hope he'll push it further."

Chan is one of 10 graduating seniors at Pomona and Scripps colleges whose work will be exhibited next week at Montgomery Art Gallery on the Pomona College campus. Most of his paintings are pointillistic, using dots that create images.

His book was printed in Hong Kong, with about half the prints in color. It sells for $12 at several stores in Claremont and on the campus. Proceeds will be placed into an endowment fund that is expected to generate from $250 to $400 a year in interest, which will be given to a minority student.

Disliked Art

Until his class with Daugherty, Chan said, he disliked art and got poor grades in his few attempts both in Hong Kong and at a prep school in Pennsylvania.

But after enrolling in Pomona in 1983, Chan fell victim to Takayasu arteritis, a rare disease that constricts arteries. He had the first of three bypass operations during his first semester break, returning to school two weeks after the second semester began.

He knew he couldn't make up the necessary work to remain enrolled in his economics courses. Just to keep enrolled in the college itself, he signed up for his first art course with Daugherty, who teaches drawing.

"I started with pointillism, then did collage and then acrylic dots, and that really stimulated me," Chan said. "I thought, dots--wow! Hey, I'm a dot person!" Now he works in several media, including sculpture.

Daugherty said: "You could see pointillism was a breakthrough--it was a freeing experience for him."

"But there was this: Every year he would go for a checkup, and we always wondered if he'd come back right away or if he would be gone the entire semester," Daugherty recalled.

Chan wondered too.

"I probably would not have been doing this if I hadn't faced death," he said as he thumbed through his book in a dormitory adorned with some of his paintings.

"Until I came here and had the first surgery, I always knew what I was going to do. I had everything set. And then these health problems just blew my plans away. I kept asking, Why me?"

Because of his health, it took Chan an extra year to meet graduation requirements, and then he qualified only as an art major. It would have taken him longer to complete an economics major, although that remains his chosen field.

Last fall, Chan assessed his works--many of which decorate offices on the campus--and decided to ask his family to publish them as a collection. Then he decided that any proceeds should benefit minority students.

"This is the first time I've experienced a student doing something like this," Daugherty said.

Ted Gibbens, vice president for development at Pomona College, said at least $5,000 must be raised to qualify as an endowment. Alfredo Ortiz, a sophomore from San Diego who is helping to administer the book sales, said about $4,600 has been raised so far.

Pomona College President David Alexander wrote a foreword to the book, as did economics Prof. Gary Smith.

"Bernard has shown considerable art in his economic thinking and, I hope, will reap some well-deserved economic rewards for his art," Smith wrote.

Curtiss J. Rooks, associate dean, wrote in another foreword: "Through Bernard's vision and action, the accomplishments of ethnic minority students can not only be recognized, but also celebrated."

Chan said he still suffers doubt about both his artistry and his future in finance.

"I keep asking Alfredo if this is really art," he said. "But I'm even more insecure about work. Business is very scary."

However, Chan said, "all those operations kind of gave me a lesson to live one day at a time. In the past, I was thinking too far ahead. Now I know I have to do what I can do, and do the best. Try to get things done now, instead of looking at a goal way out there."

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