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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He tells her what color paints and how much to mix, what kind of brushes he wants, how to prepare the canvas.

He sits on the stool as he waits for his paints to be prepared, a painting bib wrapped around his midsection and a pillow resting on his lap to take the pressure off his shoulders. Their banter is casual but purposeful. He tells Mead to add “maybe a touch more” of a certain color to the mixture she is making.

“Is a touch three-eighths or less?” Mead asks, adding to a visitor, “One nice thing about Jon, he’s pretty easygoing about this.”

She asks if the new mixture is better. “Too much?”

“Nah,” Imber shrugs. “What the hell.”

Mead helps Imber off the stool, positions the brush in his left hand and backs away.

His approach is physical, as he wills his body to move. Every few minutes, he stops to observe. Mead hands him a different brush, adjusts his smock, helps him with a sip of water, which he drinks with a straw.

Occasionally, he sits and rests. He worries that when he is working quickly he will lose his balance and collapse into the easel.

Maine filmmaker Richard Kane filmed Imber this fall. Kane calls Imber a hero for moving beyond his disability to make art against the odds. “The wonder of it all is to see the joy he gets from painting,” Kane wrote in an email. “The laughter, the humor, so often black, but very funny, brings me to tears. ... I am so grateful for Jon to be teaching me about grace in the face of one’s mortality.”

Suzette McAvoy, director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, is working with Imber on a 10-year retrospective that will open next May. “Jon Imber: Force of Nature” will put his recent portraits in context with his career, McAvoy said. The exhibition will include large-scale landscapes and seascapes, as well as recent work.

When McAvoy met with Imber in his studio in October, she sat for a portrait while they discussed the show. “It was totally unexpected,” she said of her session. “Totally unexpected and totally humbling.”

The exhibition will be the first encompassing look at Imber’s career that CMCA has hosted since 2000, she noted.

“It’s time. I consider him one of our major contemporary painters, consistently working in Maine. He’s certainly an influence on a number of younger painters as well,” she said.

In the days before he left Maine for Massachusetts, Imber expressed a desire to attempt what he expected would be his final landscape painting. With his new approach, he wanted to try to paint a cloud formation that he painted for the first time years ago. A postcard image of the original painting, announcing a long-ago exhibition, is tacked to the studio wall.

Imber was mostly curious what the clouds would look like if he painted them today, “just to surprise myself. ... It might be too much. But it’s nice to leave on a note of something new.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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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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