Despite pain

Chris Puffer helps Stanley Jones during Puffer’s art class at the Oasis at Mesa Palms Retirement Community. Despite a painful medical condition, she shares her talent as an art teacher with her neighbors. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

Two things run through the Christine “Chris” Puffer’s family: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and artistic ability.

The Canadian immigrant worked as an art teacher for 16 years at various elementary schools in the Valley until pain from EDS became too much to handle. But a new group of students has brought her back to teaching.

“So, I try and do things that are uplifting for people,” Puffer said.  “And I try and help them by making things they can give us gifts at Christmas, because it’s important to the spirit.”

Puffer lives at the Oasis at Mesa Palms retirement home at 1418 N. Country Club Drive in Mesa and teaches the other residents how to unleash their artistic ability every Friday. 

Her creative streak was born at age 5 in rural Canada at her grandma’s cottage, which had no electricity but gave her plenty of natural beauty to work with.

Near Round Lake in rural Ontario, Puffer spent the summer evenings with her grandmother playing board games, drawing, painting and singing. 

Later, she attended York University in Toronto, earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She loved every minute of her time there.

“When I went to university, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Puffer said. “Taking art all the time was the best thing ever.”

That’s also where she met her late husband, Nick Pawley, a student working toward his master’s in environmental studies who also was an artistic man who wrote his own book of poetry. He knew how to play the guitar and spoke English, French and Spanish. 

At Pawley’s celebration of life in 2017, Puffer said a friend described him as “one of the last Renaissance men,” specifically for his trilingual ability.

Pawley had survived the bombing of London during World War 2 and was sent by his father to live in the Bahamas with his mother before immigrating to Canada.

The couple married and immigrated to the U.S. with their daughter in 1983. Her husband’s work took them to live in New Jersey, Massachusetts and California. 

After earning her teaching certification in San Diego, California in 1989, the family once again moved, this time to Tempe. 

Starting in 1989, Puffer taught art to students in grades three through eight at various elementary schools around the Valley, including Tempe, Gilbert, and Surprise.

In 2005, she decided to retire when her Hypermobile EDS condition became so bad that others noticed when she was in pain.

Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is an inherited connective tissue disorder caused by defects in a protein called collagen. It’s generally considered the least severe form of EDS and a person can live  much longer with that form of the disease than others.

Puffer said her grandmother and mother had the disease and her daughter and now granddaughter have it as well. 

“The types that we have is the most painful but it is also the one that gives you the longest life,” Puffer said.

To this day, during classes, Puffer said, she walks around for an hour until the pain becomes too much and she has to sit. 

Puffer said she has always used art as her outlet to life’s troubles, from her parent’s divorce to her medical condition. 

“You could sit around and feel sorry for yourself and mope, but that’s not going to give any meaning to my life, is it,” Puffer said. “So I might as well get out and do things.”

Sadly, it became an outlet again in 2017 when, followed by the passing of her stepsister, half-brother, and her dog, her husband died from a rare cancer on the couple’s 39th wedding anniversary in August.

To ease her grieving, Puffer briefly moved out of the retirement home to live with her daughter until February 2020, when she moved back in to regain her privacy.

“I love my kids dearly, but when you’re sharing a bathroom with a 9-year-old, you really want your own space,” Puffer said.

Puffer had briefly started the art class after her husband’s death in 2017, and when she returned, everyone –  from the other residents to the facility’s director – asked if she would start teaching again.

With the retirement home covering the purchase of supplies such as paper, paint and canvas boards, Puffer gladly obliged.

Puffer sees art as something that brings some joy and hope to a world filled with pain that can begin for people even when they’re children.

“They get told they’re no good, they get told they can’t do things,” Puffer said. “And that smashes your self-esteem, whether you’re old or whether you’re little.”

But throughout her life, Puffer said she uses her art class to help people regain their self-esteem.

“When I teach my art class, a lot of people tell me afterwards, ‘you know, this made me feel so good,’” Puffer said. “It makes you feel good to accomplish something.”

Now, every Friday, up to a dozen elderly residents brave their own ailments, ranging from arthritis to multiple sclerosis and dementia, to join Puffer for a lesson in painting and drawing.

Puffer said the class gives the residents a sense of accomplishment and contributes to the retirement home’s mission of ensuring residents maintain a physically and mentally active lifestyle.

The class comes in handy this time of year, when a fixed-income doesn’t stretch as far, and Puffer said she has helped residents make homemade gifts like Christmas cards and holiday-themed paintings.

“Some of them don’t have extra money once they pay to live here to buy things,” Puffer said. “So, I try and do some Christmas present-type-stuff.”

Maria Olinyk-Pinker, 80, a Polish immigrant who has showed her paintings in places like New York City, has lived in the retirement home for six months and lends her artistic prowess to help Puffer during the class.

Olinyk-Pinker said Puffer’s classes help the residents see their own creative potential and a necessary therapy to help the mental faculties.

“This class I think is great because it gives people a chance to be creative, to see what they can do, which they don’t really realize a lot of times,” Olinyk-Pinker said.  

“And I think it’s just something to make it better for them the life’s better, because when you’re involved in things, when you’re learning, it helps to keep your mind sharp, which we all need when we reach an age.”

Dale Zarb, 67, who has lived in the retirement home for more than a year, added, “I was a skeptic about taking this class but I’ve learned other mediums that I never worked in before.”

Puffer’s students include some younger talent, such asKatelyn Winn, 20, an employee at the retirement home. 

Winn enjoys creating sketches and watercolor marker and after her mom showed off her artwork, Winn joined the classes at Puffer’s suggestion.

Winn said everyone values and appreciates Puffer for what she does, and her charisma makes the class fun. 

“There’s no pressure,” Winn said. “It makes me break my boundaries with art.”

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