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

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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 has learned a new way to paint, twice. First he learned to paint left-handed, and lately has adapted and improvised by devising work-arounds to his atrophied arms.

Mead, one of his studio assistants, makes extensions for his brushes by stapling stirring sticks to the brush handles. Imber holds the extension between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, and steadies that hand with the back of his right hand, which is twisted inward. He guides both with impulsive, instinctive thrusts that begin on the balls of his feet and pulse through his knees, hips and shoulders.

Doing an awkward dance with his easel, Imber directs the brush by throwing his weight toward the canvas, resulting in sweeping, gestural swirls of oil.

Hoy, who also paints, calls Imber one of the most courageous painters she’s ever known. In the face of a bleak diagnosis, Imber has kept his spirit bright and found the strength to work, she said. “It’s hopefully not the last year of painting, but it may well be,” she said. “He better try to hit bedrock as deeply as he can while (he has) those abilities.”

He has made more than 100 paintings since August, and can’t recall a creative burst when he has felt more alive and accomplished. Before heading back to Massachusetts in mid-November, he finished more than a painting a day, a dizzying pace.

How much of a painter is he? He’s never felt better about his work, and never felt more sure of himself as an artist.

If he dies tomorrow, he will die knowing he did his best work until the very end. He did not compromise and did not settle.

“I hope to come back,” Imber said days before leaving Stonington for the winter. “If I can make it another summer, fine. But I may not be able to paint much longer. It’s very hard. I feel like if I am painting next summer, it will be with my foot or mouth.”

He jokes that if he does come back to Stonington next summer, he will have to find an old church ceiling to paint, where he can lie on his back and work like Michelangelo.


Imber and Hoy stayed longer in Maine this fall. They normally would be back at their home in Somerville, Mass., Imber teaching at Harvard as he has done for nearly three decades. But they extended their time in Maine while workers prepared an elevator at their Somerville co-op. He is on leave from his teaching job at Harvard.

In Stonington, they hosted a steady parade of friends and family, acquaintances old and new, who came to say hello and goodbye, to pay their respects and wish them well. Now and again, someone would rub Imber’s back.

Imber encouraged his guests to stay long enough to paint their portrait. An abstract expressionist known for big, lush and lively canvases, Imber this summer returned to portraiture, an early art-career love. One hundred of the most recent portraits, all completed since August, hang through Dec. 10 at Haystack’s Center for Community Programs in Deer Isle.

Stu Kestenbaum, Haystack’s director, was struck by the immediacy of the portraits. He recognized many of the faces on the wall when he visited Imber in his studio in October. But that wasn’t the point. The faces on the wall exuded a spirit that Imber encouraged and captured, said Kestenbaum, who was among the 100-plus who sat for a portrait.

While sitting in the studio watching as Imber painted him, Kestenbaum observed an artist determined to paint at any cost, to suffer discomfort and risk his own safety for the sake of a few ragged marks of oil on canvas. A lesser artist would concede his time left to the ravages of the disease.

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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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