Jon Imber, a renowned painter, Harvard professor of art and summer resident of Stonington, died Thursday at his home in Somerville, Mass.
Imber was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in the brain, in 2012. Despite the dire prognosis, Imber inspired his friends and colleagues in the art world with his determination to continue to paint, even as the disease, on an almost daily basis, took away his ability to do so.
“When his right arm went, he had to relearn with his left arm,” Imber’s wife, Jill Hoy, said Friday night. The effects of the disease “threw off what was easy about painting – it was crude and rough and real. It was a struggle, but he conquered it and that brought its own sense of surprise and profundity.”
Known for painting large landscapes and abstracts throughout his career, Imber shifted to small portraits of those who came to see him after he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He spent much of last summer in Stonington painting portraits of those who stopped in with a meal or gave him a back rub, said Stuart Kestenbaum, director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, where dozens of Imber’s Stonington portraits were displayed in a show last November.
Imber’s portraits “became kind of a community event,” said Kestenbaum, who noted that Imber painted a portrait of Kestenbaum’s wife when she stopped by to see him.
“It was amazing to see his tenacity and perseverance and joy,” Kestenbaum said Friday night. “His ability to keep on working transformed everyone around him. If you think there was a reason not to go into the studio or not to do some work that needed to be done, you were not going to have that after seeing Jon.”
Suzette McAvoy, director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, found herself the subject of an Imber portrait last summer when she visited the artist to discuss a show of his work that will open next month.
She said it was fascinating and inspiring to see how Imber adapted his painting techniques as the disease kept throwing up limits on what he was able to do.
“It was an incredible experience to see him break down the steps of how he was going to get there,” McAvoy said Friday. “That’s how I came up with the title (for the exhibit), ‘Force of Nature,’ because it was a force of nature that was just driving his brush and willing himself to defy the odds.”
Born in 1950, Imber was known during most of his career for his ability to capture the energy and nature of a place rather than merely create a literal depiction of a landscape, McAvoy said. He brought that ability to his portraits as well, she said, as he built the paintings a stroke at a time to draw out a subject’s spirit.
Hoy said nearly every day brought a new challenge for Imber to overcome.
“He just kept focusing on what he could do, even though the slide was so fast,” she said. “They talk about cliffs and plateaus with this disease, but I don’t think we ever saw a plateau.”
Imber himself had said the drive to create overpowered the ravages of the disease.
“I got hooked on the excitement of painting friends and family,” he said in 2013. “It got under my skin and I started really, really digging it. The really cool thing is I didn’t know I’d start painting portraits like a madman. I didn’t think I had it in me, and apparently I do.”
His wife noted that before he got ALS, Imber liked to challenge himself, and that trait might have served him well as he dealt with what the disease was doing to his muscles.
“As a painter, you’re reinventing all the time, and Jon was an astounding painter,” Hoy said. “He was always looking for something different. He would do a beautiful painting and he’d turn it over and tear back into it. He never got complacent.”
As ALS took away the use of his dominant right hand soon after the diagnosis, Imber began to paint left-handed, with the back of his right hand guiding the brush in bold strokes across the canvas. Leg braces helped him stand in front of the canvas and his studio assistant or Hoy, also an artist, would mix the paint, with Imber helping guide them to the shade he wanted.
As the disease progressed, he eventually lost the ability to stand before the canvas, Hoy said, yet he continued to work, eventually using headgear with a brush attached. He did about a dozen portraits this year using the headgear, she said.
Imber last painted a week ago, on April 11, Hoy said. When he tried again Tuesday, his neck muscles had gone. That also meant a computer he used – controlled by a light beam attached to the headgear that turned what he “typed” on a keyboard into speech – could no longer be controlled by Imber, Hoy said.
“You took away his painting and his ability to communicate and that was what Jon was all about,” she said.
Imber indicated to Hoy that he would soon start to fast to shorten the time to the end, she said, and he died in his sleep early Thursday.
“He gave his all, right to the end,” she said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at: