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 just keeps working, day after day.

“You are the person you are, you are not the condition you have,” Kestenbaum said. “He has this disability, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about this ability.”

Imber has been an uplifting presence in the community, Kestenbaum said. People have learned from the grace that he has exhibited. “It’s one of the worst diagnoses you can hear,” Kestenbaum said. “And yet, his spirit is astonishing.”

Imber pronounces this body of work as satisfying as anything he’s ever done. These are not precise renderings of his subjects, but suggestive portraits that capture their energy, spirit and essence. They are fast and loose – first impressions of his subjects, some he knows well and others he is meeting for the first time.

“In addition to my output and I think the really, really high quality of my work, I would like to stress that, above everything else, I think my new work is really tough and really expressive, and there was no leaning on facility,” Imber said. “Like raw emotion. I have no way I can do anything but kind of raw, expressive gestures. And I’m very proud of it. It’s what I always wanted in painting. And now I can get there without facility.”

His move to Maine caused a shift in his work, said his boss at Harvard, Cathy McCormick, director of programs for Harvard’s Office for the Arts. As a young painter in the 1970s, Imber made a lot of figurative work, including large allegorical portraits. In Maine, he became an abstract expressionist, who focused on the landscape.


Peggy Greenhut Golden, owner of Greenhut Galleries in Portland, has sold Imber’s work for decades. He is among the most popular artists at Greenhut because his paintings are expressive and energetic, she said. “One of his strokes has so much energy in it, and sometimes defiance,” she said. Those same traits surface in these new portraits, Golden noted.

McCormick called the portraits “stunning, which isn’t surprising to me. He is very able. He is as powerful a portrait painter as he is a powerful abstract landscape painter.”

What surprises McCormick is Imber’s “outpouring of explosive energy.”

Imber is surprised by it as well. “Good art is not planned,” he said. “I mean, the really cool thing is that I had no idea I was going to start painting portraits like a madman. I didn’t think I had it in me, and basically, I don’t. After a painting session, my body is pretty tired.”

What is left of his muscles misfire all the time, leaving his body rippling with pulsing waves that never stop. He is tired even when he sleeps.

But something happens when he gets into the studio. On legs that cannot walk, he is able to rise and stand. With hands that cannot lift, he is able to hold a brush.

“When I am thinking about my painting, I’m not thinking about my legs. It’s really a wonderful thing,” Imber said. “I can’t stand for an hour or two, but they don’t bother me when I’m painting.”

The first few strokes might be a little rough. The next two feel better. “An hour or two later, I can’t believe what I have just done,” Imber said. “Day after day – I’m amazed at myself.”

The artist laughed at his immodesty.

In the studio, Imber’s painterly instincts take over. He can’t mix his own paint, but has trained Mead well. She is one of three or four studio assistants Imber and Hoy hired this summer.

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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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