December 1, 2013

Battling ALS, Maine artist learning to paint anew

Jon Imber remains determined to express his creativity on canvas, producing a remarkable new body of work that is, like him, defined by its defiance, energy and grace.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

STONINGTON — Jon Imber doesn’t have the strength to walk the 30 feet from the side door of his house to his little studio out back. His wife, Jill Hoy, and a studio assistant, Holley Mead, each take an arm and lift him out of his kitchen chair, help him out the door, down the ramp and across the damp green grass.

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Stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – more familiarly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – Jon Imber keeps up his sense of humor and energy in his studio in Stonington last month. “I found out that (painting) really means a lot to me, so I want to keep doing it,” says the 63-year-old artist, who adds that he has never felt better about his work.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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The artist’s wife, Jill Hoy, right, and a studio assistant, Holley Mead, assist Jon Imber as he prepares to work in his Stonington studio, where evidence of his latest burst of creative energy decorates the walls. Hoy described her husband, who has had to relearn to paint after ALS robbed him of first his right arm, then his left, as one of the most courageous painters she’s ever known. Since August, the artist has maintained a dizzying pace, creating more than 100 paintings.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Imber shuffles as the women hold him up and guide him to his painting studio. Inside, he rests several minutes on a stool, then – by some miracle – rises and stands before a blank, 24-by-24-inch canvas. Barely able to hold a brush and racing against the sudden certainty of death, Imber, 63, is determined to channel every ounce of creative energy left in his body before a neurological disease makes it impossible to paint.

An art professor at Harvard for 27 years with an illustrious career as an abstract expressionist, Imber has long split his time between Maine and Massachusetts. In the summer of 2012, the artist had been feeling weakness in his right arm, his painting arm, when he went to his doctor. A series of tests ruled out things such as carpal tunnel or spine impingement. Appointments with acupuncturists and chiropractors yielded to consultations with neurologists.

The diagnosis came in the fall of last year: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive and fatal neurological disease that attacks the nerves responsible for controlling muscles.

He’s been experiencing a steady decline ever since.

In a cruel twist for the painter, Imber lost the use of his right arm first. Unbowed, he taught himself to paint as a lefty. Now, both arms have atrophied.

Still, he paints.

ALS has challenged Imber to confront one final time the question at the root of his decades-long life as an artist: How much of a painter am I?

To what lengths will he go to create? What level of satisfaction will he enjoy?

“I found out that it really means a lot to me, so I want to keep doing it. I feel a real sense of accomplishment,” Imber said in a halting, raspy voice that ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – has slowed and weakened. “You know, there is a romantic answer to that question, and it turns out that it is accurate. I had no idea how much it meant to me to be painting, and not just filling up time and canvas, but really painting. Meaning, I would take a big risk every day.”



Jon Imber was diagnosed with ALS in September 2012. These images are representative of his work prior to his diagnosis as well as his more recent work, some of which was created after he lost the use of his arms.


Imber’s paintings are in public and private collections across New England, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Farnsworth in Rockland and the Currier in Manchester, N.H. He has spent summers in Stonington for 25 years, and taught figure drawing to Harvard undergrads since 1986. He also has enjoyed a successful commercial career, commanding five-figures for large oil landscapes.

Every time he crosses his studio threshold and picks up a brush, he puts himself to the greatest test an artist can face. Day to day, he doesn’t know if he can complete the work or what it will look like. He has reinvented how he works and how he sees the world, while inspiring friends and family who marvel at his spirit and determination.

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Additional Photos

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Jon Imber signs a completed painting with a screwdriver at his Stonington studio. “I may not be able to paint much longer,” the artist says. “I feel like if I am painting next summer, it will be with my foot or mouth.”

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Holley Mead, a studio assistant to Jon Imber, mixes a shade of red before the artist begins a portrait in his Stonington studio last month. After being diagnosed with ALS last year, Imber has relied on Mead and others in his creative process.

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Stonington artist Jon Imber painted this self-portrait at his studio this year.

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Four portraits painted by Jon Imber ...

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