Hawaii Dental Association Journal, 1984

Spotlight: Dr. Rodney Chang

by Bruno West, D.D.S.


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Rodney Chang has as much courage, strength of conviction and enthusiasm as any man I've ever met. He has bucked convention and been true to his own values even though family and peer pressures exist to bend him to conform. He's irrepressible!

I'd only seen the Disco Doc at meetings and while running occasionally and just didn't know what to expect when I went to visit his office in Kalihi. The office is a successful and appealing experiment which definitely lessens the apprehension and painful association patient may have with dentistry. You don't have to dance, but you just might be moved to! Rodney has a younger clientele for whom his decor is appropriate and distracting. Surprise, it works on graybeards like myself as well! I'm sure I underwhelmed Dr. Chang with my understanding of art, but the total message conveyed to me by his decor and layout was, "this is not a place where bad things happen." The main waiting room is indeed imbued with a kaleidoscope of colored flashing lights and well selected music - but the walls are smoked glass and you can vaguely see other operatories and happy places throughout the office. No hidden torture chambers here, no dark secrets, just colorful creations of Rodney's that amuse and intrigue and draw you in.

One of his first assurances was that, "I give a damn about my (restoration) margins." It is also apparent that he enjoys his dentistry and pampers his patients by allaying fears and performing his dental art in the most painless way possible. His office is a very real extension of his philosophy of art and psychology and it works! Rodney assesses himself as the black sheep of a family of five. his boundless energy manifested itself early in a variety of ways. He was bored by conventional toys as a child, preferring flights of fantasy such as creating a dirt stock car track complete with banked turns and potted plants on his parent's lanai. This for souped-up tricycles he and his friends caromed about in sliding, screaming turns over slicked wet pavement, mimicking the madness of the adult version of the sport. his staid middle-class Chinese parents began to realize Rod was going to test their patience. And he did.

As an adolescent, he devised a secret postal system complete with mysterious drop offs and codes to communicate with his cohorts. He was always the leader of the band. At Kalani High School he became consumed with rock music and parlayed ten years of accordion lessons into an unconventional rock band that went on to win nine of ten musical competitions. This with a bizarre grouping of three accordionists, a lead and rhythm guitar to give legitimacy. During this time he also invented a game whose patent was purchased by Ideal Toy Company and marketed as "NFL Pro Football." Those were heady years for Rodney as he saw he could so something different and creative and be a success. Hard years too, for parents who wanted more conventional behavior and acceptable career goals for their son. After graduation from Kalani, he balanced his love of music with obtaining a degree in Zoology from the University of Hawaii and went on to Dental School at Loyola. His love and respect for his parents and their desire for him to get a professional degree had suppressed a latent love of art - but as soon as it became apparent he'd graduate from Loyola he gain his education and career in art - at nights, while attending dental school during the day.

Beginning in the first semester of his junior year at Dental School he simultaneously enrolled in Triton College (River Grove, Illinois) and pursued his interest in art.

Imagine what we went through in those hectic years and here was Rodney balancing two academic educations!

By the time he graduated from dental school he had completed his requirements for an Associate of Arts Degree from Triton and put on an exhibition of his work. He graduated from Loyola with a DDS on Saturday and an AA degree from Triton on Sunday.

Embarking on a whirlwind effort after graduation he began working as an associated for a dentist in Chicago, had been accepted into the Pedodontic program at Loyola, and been given probationary acceptance in a masters program in art at Northern Illinois University based on the quality of his art work at Triton.

From an apartment serving more as a command post, he drove 25 miles one way to day time graduate dental courses and then 50 miles back the other way to night art graduate school for a daily 100 mile commute! The frantic pace and commitment caused even Rodney to burn out, and he was forced to make a crucial life decision. He dropped out of Pedo, incurring the wrath of the Department at Loyola and continued working as a dentist to support his pursuit for his masters in art.

Comes the draft! Even though he enrolled in ROTC, the Army's computer got him. First choice Europe - he was assigned to hazardous duty at the DMZ (demilitarized zone, or "no man's land" between North and South Koreas) north of Seoul, Korea. It was a real change of pace to wear a helmet and combat boots while treating patients. He honed his dental skills by handling all the tough wisdom teeth and was the man to see for root canals. Typically he filled his free time with a variety of courses offered through the military, and received a diploma in Interior Decoration from La Salle Extension University, a diploma in darkroom skills and photography, pursued a law correspondence course, and enrolled in a masters program in Education. The experience was satisfying and he extended for another 12 months of hazardous duty and completed his Masters of Education from University of Southern California in 1975. Later that year he picked up on his Masters of Art at Northern Illinois University after his army duty was over. By now he felt he could write a book on how to be a professional student - courses got easier as he developed the skill to skim a textbook and glean its essential content. Rod felt he had a definite edge in any other program after the pressures and structure of dental school.

The masters' program was somewhat of a shock, the soul he had expected to find in the Arts wasn't there! The need for conformity was here, too - emphasis was on grades, emulating another's style, accumulation of credits, okole-smooching (ass-kissing) politics and burdensome techniques. He realized artists weren't given all the tools to be creative and this perception eventually culminated in a desire to investigate the psychology of art. His masters' thesis resulted in a one man show of paintings on Odontic Images at Northern Illinois.

He worked with a dentist (Frank Harris, DDS) in Rochelle, Illinois while pursuing his Masters. After successfully completing the program, he chose to return to Hawaii.

It was good to be home and with family again. There were several associations with local practitioners, but Rodney decided to open his own practice in the Alexander Young Building. The practice boomed; his father, Alfred K.B. Chang, was his initial receptionist/assistant; he practiced dentistry wearing a long white smock and blossoming tie. The trend of filling hours way from dentistry with the challenge of learning continued. He commuted to Scholfield Barracks 25 miles away where he completed a Masters in Community Leadership from Central Michigan University in 1976, then he received a BA in Psychology from Hawaii Pacific College in 1977. Crystallizing his realization that Art and Psychology are the same and seeking to know more about that connection, he entered a doctoral program in Art Psychology from Union Graduate School in Ohio.

These were years of a deepening commitment to his non-dental mistresses - a realization too that there is prejudice in the art community against psychology as being too analytical. Courses he really wanted in Perceptual Psychology were hard to find and this kept him going. He'd review his notes in margins of his text books and there was always the thread of how psychological principles would relate to art - his own art. His investigation of the concept resulted in his authoring a book on the subject, "Mental Evolution and Art" published by Exposition Press in 1980.

These pursuits, juggled with phasing out his practice demise of the Alexander Young Building and building a new office in Kalihi which was to become the lair of the Disco Doc, resulted in two more degrees, an M.A. in Psychology of Counseling and Guidance from the University of Northern Colorado and a Ph.D. in Art Psychology from Union Graduate School, Ohio.

Rodney claims to have mellowed and matured these past few years, has a solidly established practice and is more able to deal with the business aspects of his office and suggestions of his accountant. He is proud of his acknowledged talents as a dancer, he has run seven marathons in very good times, has made peace with his family, and has a serious and long term relationship with a woman he may end up sharing his life with.

There are also nine degrees from nine different universities ranging from a Ph.D. - a feat that ties him with an Englishman in the Guiness Book of Records. His accomplishments have resulted in an interview by Oahu Magazine and by Playboy Magazine, an appearance on NBC Television's "Real People" (rated highest watched show of the networks that year), and features on disco radio stations across the country. He has intentions of obtaining a tenth degree and has been courted by Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Guiness Book of Records for further TV features.

It is difficult to chronicle the achievements of Rodney Chang but for all his activity I found him to be very easy and comfortable to share time with. I was most impressed with his scruples and morality, at his gentle insistence on being himself, and his respect for his family and its traditions.

We discussed his acceptance in the dental profession and Rod admits he would like more friends and interchange and acknowledgement from dentists. He gets much more support from psychologists locally and abroad than he does from local dentists. He is very serious about his dentistry and is proud of the quality of his work and his compassion for patients. Dentistry is a great profession for Rod, it allows him to be free as an artist and still eat - he further points out, with a chuckle, there is a safety from suicide in art and psychology as opposed to the stresses of dentistry.

He also states it is harder to become established as an artist than as a dentist - the work is more critically evaluated. It is hard to resist living in New York City, the cultural center of avante garde art, but he prefers to grow and experiment here in Honolulu. His enthusiasm for the new art is contagious!

The explosion of technology and new materials have allowed great freedom in Art and Rodney thrives on it - he wants to grow unrestrained. His personal philosophy is "Whatever your fantasy is, build it!"

He feels his accumulation of degrees and experience have allowed him to be more comfortable as the "Disco Dentist" and that he is a stronger person as a dentist with his background in art and psychology. There are a multiplicity of goals in his future life. He wants to stay in dental practice and fulfill his dream of becoming an international-known artist in mixed media, including printmaking, photography, painting, sculpture, ceramics, conceptual happenings and environments, film and TV production, and work with found objects such as dental materials.

He is also harboring specific plans of completing a tenth degree in sculpture at Columbia Pacific University in San Francisco. Part of the requirement would be a one-man show - Rod plans to use dental materials for dental sculpture - and the gallery he'd like to use is the new waiting room of his dental office in Waikiki. The techniques of dental school have come home to roost, sprues and casting, but this time in bronze and with greater concern for mega margins.

I for one, would like to attend and follow the further exploits of the fabulous Rodney Chang.



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