Written by: 
Lisa Sciortino
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik

The human figure has long been a prominent theme of Lori Rohloff-Peek's ('84) paintings -- even as her own body has been transformed by Huntington's disease. She was diagnosed decades ago with the rare genetic brain disorder.

A selection of her artwork -- portraits, abstracts and collages -- will be exhibited July 12-27 at the UNT CoLab, the downtown Denton art gallery, boutique and event venue that's run through the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism. An opening reception is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. July 12.

CoLab director Kristen Kendrick Bigley calls Rohloff-Peek -- who earned a bachelor's in psychology at North Texas -- and her artwork inspirational. "Despite living with a degenerative disease, Lori has continued to create art. The results tell a story of her journey of living with these changes in her body."

Huntington's disease impacts cells in areas of the brain that regulate memory and voluntary movement. The cells eventually lose function and die. Those with the condition develop uncontrollable movements -- called chorea -- and other issues involving behavior, emotion, thinking and personality.

As Rohloff-Peek's motor skills declined due to the disease -- impacting the function of her arms, hands, legs, feet and eventually the quality of her speech -- she implemented tools, methods and mediums that allowed her to continue creating art.

"Art existed as my escape" from the disease, Rohloff-Peek wrote in Life & Art with Huntington's Disease, the autobiography she penned and self-published earlier this year, in which she shares details about her life before and after her diagnosis as well as photos of dozens of her paintings. "It was in my art that I got to explore parts of myself."

Transferring Emotions

Born in Canada to a mother who also had Huntington's disease, Rohloff-Peek was drawn to music and art from an early age. Following her parents' divorce when she was a preteen, she lived with her father, stepmother, sister and half-brother in England, where she attended the American School in London before the family relocated to Dallas.

While at North Texas, she met her husband, retired UNT associate professor of psychology Leon Peek. She later earned a bachelor's in education at Texas Woman's University, where she also studied painting and drawing before going on to teach art to students with disabilities in Sanger.

Physical and neurological symptoms of the disease surfaced years before Rohloff-Peek received an official diagnosis. As she battled depression, "I poured my emotions into my art," she wrote in the book. "I would become engrossed in my subject. Many times, my emotions would leave me and go into the painting."

She has always been interested in portrait and figure painting and was inspired by artists Pablo Picasso and Marie Laurencin. "Faces, ridden with emotions, were a beautiful way to communicate the human experience -- my experience -- to others," she wrote.

As she lost the ability to "freestyle," she began creating art with the help of a projector to guide her hands. Eventually, she transitioned from using an upright standing easel to a tabletop while painting. More recently, she's favored creating "paint pour"-style pieces on canvas as well as with watercolors and other "free-flowing" mediums.

'So Expressive'

Rohloff-Peek is a member of The Art Room, a nonprofit Denton art studio for those with mental health issues. Earlier this year, one of her works was exhibited alongside those of other studio members at the CoLab. Showing her art is "affirming and gave me the confidence to continue" to create, she says.

"Lori's art is just so expressive," says psychologist Marlys Lamar ('86 Ph.D.), founder and president of The Art Room. "She can capture emotion. Some of that is through her use of color, but there's also just something about how she seems to capture a feeling and expression of what the subject is experiencing."

Several of Rohloff-Peek's works were inspired by the Emily Dickinson poem "The Lost Thought."

I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.

"Like with most things in my life, I fought resiliently" against symptoms of Huntington's disease and was determined "they should not overtake me," Rohloff-Peek wrote in her book. She encourages aspiring artists to "be honest with yourself and be open to new experiences."

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