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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Diagnosis For Creativity
A Puerto Rican transplant to Kissimmee battles multiple sclerosis with music and a paintbrush.
By Pamela J. Johnson | Sentinel Staff Writer
July 6, 2004
KISSIMMEE -- Melvin Antuna had become so weak he could not open a jar without his wife's help. Then he lost sight in his right eye. Soon, he was unable to walk.
That's when he picked up a paintbrush.
After he was diagnosed 11/2 years ago with multiple sclerosis, Antuna's life morphed from a mood of pitch-black to vibrant colors. The disease brought out the artist in him he never knew existed.
"I had to do something," said Antuna, 27. "I couldn't leave the house. I was getting more and more depressed. I thought, 'This is not happening to me.' I had a lot of time, and I didn't want to think about being sick."
He spent two weeks in the hospital battling the disease. Returning to his Kissimmee home, he took medication that restored some of his energy.
When he began feeling better, he carved out of wood a figurine of the angry blue Genie crossing his enormous arms from Aladdin.
"I was probably feeling that way at the time," said Antuna, crossing his arms and grimacing like the character does in the Disney animation.
Although playing the guitar has relaxed him since boyhood, he found that drawing was also cathartic. Painting, he figured, might have the same soothing effect.
His wife took him to the supply store to buy acrylics. She picked out the largest canvases the store offered.
His doctor also encouraged him.
"We were all trying to motivate him," said Dr. Jermania Estevez, an internal medicine practitioner in Kissimmee who first told him he had multiple sclerosis. The disease affects the central nervous system -- the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. She knew he had to do something to get out of his depression.
"What we know is that art always is a way to escape and imagine," Estevez said. "In my personal opinion, Melvin was dealing with all these fears and insecurities. He didn't know what was going on. He used art to express what he was feeling."
The first acrylic he painted was two roosters with evil-looking eyes in a cockfight. The next depicted carnivalgoers wearing large, grotesque masks with tongues hanging out. He said when he painted them he was feeling angry about being afflicted with the disease.
He converted a room at his home into a small studio. Large canvases with bright yellows, greens and blues in thick, bold strokes hang on the walls.
Now, Antuna is beginning to sell his work. Two canvases went for $3,000. Another sold for $4,800. Last week he was negotiating the sale of a pair of acrylic paintings for $4,500.
The Puerto Rican's destiny changed the morning he awoke with a headache so intense he couldn't open his eyes. The throbbing in his head made him throw up.
"The hardest part was not knowing what it was," his wife, Yesenia, also 27, said. "He was in denial. He didn't want to believe he was sick. At first he wouldn't go to the doctor. I begged him, 'You need to go, please. Don't do this to me.' "
It look some persuasion.
"I kept thinking, 'I'm healthy. Yes, I'm losing my sight, but I'll get it back. I never get sick, so why is this happening to me?' " he said.
Judith Magali Rojas, president of Centro de Cultura Puertorriqueñade la Florida Inc., met Antuna in November.
"I saw his beautiful work," said Rojas, whose nonprofit Orlando group promotes Puerto Rican artists. "I knew about his disease and knew he was producing this work despite a lot of pain."
Rojas invited him to the Hispanic Business Expo in Orlando in April, which reinforced his enthusiasm for painting.
Antuna was no stranger to paints. His father was a sign-maker who worked from a tiny studio at home in their rural Puerto Rican town of Patillas. Antuna grew up playing with brushes and paints like other children played with coloring books.
But, rather than follow his father's path and paint traffic signs for the city, Antuna dreamed big. At 21, he left his family in Patillas and moved to Kissimmee, his heart set on becoming a Disney animator.
His passion was drawing cartoons in pencil. He attended Valencia Community College and studied computer art. He worked part time at a graphic arts company.
His parents and siblings left Patillas and followed Antuna to Kissimmee.
Happily married to his high-school sweetheart and with his family living nearby, Antuna felt secure about his future.
Even his family at first refused to accept he had a lifelong illness.
"I remember seeing my mother crying but I didn't really know what was going on," said Antuna's brother, Alexis Antuna, 25. "She only said that my brother had problems. I thought, 'He has this problem right now at this moment but he'll get better.' I felt in my heart that it's going to be gone someday and he's going to be all right."
Alexis Antuna, also an artist, emulated his brother and sought to become a Disney animator.
"When I was a little kid, whatever he would do, I followed him," Alexis Antuna said. "If he drew a clown, I drew a clown."
The younger Antuna's course also took a drastic turn earlier this year when Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida shut down. He knew his dream of becoming a Disney animator, like his brother's, was shot.
He now entertains patrons at Magic Kingdom dressed in heavy costumes playing Disney characters. He still draws, specializing in portraits.
Melvin Antuna paints on days that he doesn't inject himself with Avonex, which slows the progression of the disability. The drug, he said, nauseates him violently for hours.
His subjects and style began evolving nearly a year ago, when his health slowly began improving and his son, Mel, was born.
His brush strokes became more colorful and bolder and he painted images that reminded him of home: a muscular Paso Fino horse; a coqui, the little yellow frog and official mascot of Puerto Rico, perched on a red hibiscus; a flaming red flamboyan tree.
Much of his work is painted with jagged lines reminiscent of stained glass. Others are painted with round bold swirls.
After Mel was born, Melvin created two paintings of men wearing cowboy hats in Puerto Rico. One depicts a man loading freshly cut sugar cane on the back of a bull-drawn carriage.
Another depicts an old man with gray hair and glasses, sitting quietly in front of his house, cradling a rooster. The old man has a serene look on his face as he pets the rooster in his lap.
Antuna says he sees himself in the old man.