Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 19, 2013
In illness, Jon Imber creates a community in life and art
Stonington artist Jon Imber begins a portrait of Julie Morringello to add to his gallery of local faces. Imber, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, has created “a painting a day” of local residents in the studio he shares with wife Jill Hoy, at right.
by Anne Berleant
Diagnosed last year with ALS—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—Jon Imber continues to live the way he has for decades, as an artist, creating colors and turning blank canvases into works of art.
It is nearly everything else about his life that has changed.
ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, affects the nerve cells in the brain so it can no longer send messages to the muscles. It cannot be cured and progressively gets worse. About 20 percent of people with ALS live five years or more after diagnosis, according to the ALS Association; 5 percent live 20 years; in some cases, symptoms don’t get worse, and in a very small number the symptoms reverse. Approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with ALS each year.
That is one set of facts.
For Imber, a second set of facts is that ALS has not just altered his body—he sits in a wheelchair and has lost the use of his right hand and most of his left—but has transformed him from an artist who needed solitude in order to create, into one inspired by the community that has grown around him since his diagnosis.
The walls of his Stonington studio are filled with the portraits of friends from the local community whom Imber has painted with his left hand over the past few months.
“I’m trying to have a lot of love and laughter in my life with family and friends,” Imber said in a recent interview.
When he first lost the use of his right hand, his painting hand, in the summer of 2012, he became “fairly depressed,” he said. “It was more of a freak out…[I] have a terminal illness that everyone says is one of the worst things than can happen to a human being.”
Then he decided to try painting with his left hand.
His motivation sprang from a request by filmmaker Dick Kane, who wanted to profile Imber for a segment of the Maine Masters series dedicated to Maine artists.
“I tried to paint with my same energy and same ambition,” he said. “I have made the discovery that my left hand could do what my right hand could do, with an authenticity I never had before.”
Then, this past summer, he lost most of the use of his left hand.
“I thought my painting days were over,” he said.
He had recently painted “a few portraits for friends and family” and realized “how much he enjoyed the process. With the help of assistant Holley Mead, he has been able to continue.
Since August, he has created a painting a day. “Isn’t that a story,” he said.
Imber started his career in the late 1970s as a expressionist figure painter, and then moved into landscapes and abstracts, often using Stonington as a subject.
Married to the Stonington artist Jill Hoy— he calls himself “a relative newcomer” who is “very happy to be Mr. Hoy”—Imber has split his time between Maine and Massachusetts since the early 1990s.
As an artist, “the goal is to be surprised on a daily basis,” he said.
Painting small portraits of live subjects, however, is new creative territory.
“As I was painting [the first portraits], I realized…I was not interested in doing a portrait of Stonington. I was not interested in documenting a fishing village.
“I just wanted to paint the people I cared about.”
Mead “is crucial” to the process, he said. “She knows, she can now anticipate.” She mixes his colors, hoists him from his wheelchair to his feet in front of the canvas, and places the paint brush in his left hand, which is “now in a permanent grip.”
Friends “drop by,” and Imber paints them.
“Painting used to be a solitary experience,” he said. “I never knew you could have so much fun painting.”
“The house has become porous,” said Hoy, who helps Imber in his daily struggle with ALS, and often paints beside him in their studio. “People come in. There’s so much energy, it makes you very present in the moment…It’s so palpable.”
On a recent day, Julie Morringello, a Stonington resident, came to the studio to sit for a portrait. “Completely honored” to have her portrait painted by Imber, she can’t remember how they first met.
“It’s like, how do I not know John,” she said. “I’ve always been a fan of his work.”
“I’ve had a great life,” said Imber. “I have a good reputation [and] a great body of work under my belt.”
He asked Moringello to turn this way, that way, and laid his first brush strokes on the canvas.
“On some level, I am now accepting death,” he said. “You think about it and think about it and finally say, ‘It is what it is.’”