Unquenchable Spirit

Diagnosed with ALS, acclaimed painter Jon Imber reached ever deeper into his creative well.

By Edgar Allen Beem

When Jon Imber’s Left Hand premiered at the Maine Jewish Film Festival in March, the audience at Portland Museum of Art rose as one, turned to face the rear of the auditorium, and gave a standing ovation to the artist whose heroic battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) the film portrays. Jon Imber, 63, no longer able to stand or speak, sat in a wheelchair smiling.

One of the region’s most respected painters, Imber was in a battle for his life, and he had chosen to fight back with art. Though best known in recent years for brilliantly abstracted landscapes and botanicals, Imber began his career as a figurative painter, and it was to these humanist roots he returned when he began to suffer with ALS, painting a powerful series of portraits of family and friends that numbers close to 200.

Jon Imber’s Left Hand is both disturbing and inspirational as it depicts how Imber perseveres as a painter even as his condition deteriorates. Over the course of the hour-long film, viewers see Imber at the onset of the disease, still walking, talking, and accommodating the weakness in his right hand by switching to the left. Months later he can no longer stand unaided, speak clearly, or move either arm. The fierce struggle with which Imber continues to apply paint to panels is one of bravery and anxiety, defiance and determination. The film left more than one viewer in tears.

“We never could have predicted how he would react to his own mortality,” filmmaker Richard Kane said of Imber at the time. “He is someone who is living into his dying. He is not going to give up.”

A resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and a longtime summer resident of Stonington, on Deer Isle, Jon Imber is being celebrated in 2014 not only with the new documentary film, but also exhibitions in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

In the late 1970s, Imber established himself as one of the rising stars of the contemporary art scene in Boston with powerful figurative paintings that narrated his own life in almost Biblical terms. He taught figure drawing at Harvard for 27 years and showed regularly at the best galleries in Boston.

He began visiting Vinalhaven and Deer Isle in the mid-1980s and met his future wife, painter Jill Hoy, at artist Karl Schrag’s annual end-of-summer salon in 1991. Over the next two decades, as he split his time between Boston and Maine, Imber evolved a style of loose, brushy de Kooning-esque abstraction based on observations of the Deer Isle landscape and the flowers of Jill Hoy’s garden.

It was in June 2012 that Imber noticed a weakness and tingling in his right hand and arm. At first he thought it might be a pinched nerve or carpal tunnel syndrome. In September, he was diagnosed with ALS. He had already been selected to be the subject of one of the Maine Masters video profiles sponsored by the Union of Maine Visual Artists, but his battle to continue painting even as the disease robbed him of his motor skills inevitably became the film’s focus. Kane, who co-produced the film with artist Robert Shetterly and writer Carl Little, started filming in December. In January of 2013, Imber began painting with his left hand.

By the time he returned to Stonington that summer, Imber was having trouble speaking, walking, and using his arms. “Embracing joy in the midst of my ALS summer,” Imber quips defiantly in one scene. As the summer of 2013 progressed, he was forced to confine his painting to the studio.

“He was a different person from the house to studio,” said fellow artist Eric Hopkins, who visited Imber and Hoy that summer. “Once he got in the studio it was unreal, a major transformation.”

Hopkins saw Imber’s struggle with his disability as a form of aesthetic empowerment. “I liken it to cave painters,” Hopkins said. “It’s a pure creative spirit. He captures the essence of the life form without having to deal with the details. He was free of the damn details. He painted it super real.”

“When I heard about the diagnosis, I immediately became fatalistic,” said National Gallery of Art curator Harry Cooper, who has known Imber since they worked together at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. “How stupid of me not to realize that Jon would turn this into a triumph.”

As friends began to show up in Stonington more and more frequently to check in on Jon and offer assistance to him and Jill, Imber embraced the new social aspect of his life by beginning the portrait series. As gestural and free as his landscape and botanical abstractions, the late portraits capture essential humanity and personality the way few contemporary painters other than Alice Neel and Elizabeth Peyton have managed. By summer’s end, he had painted 107 portraits.

“One thing struck me,” said Cooper. “He’s not just still painting, he’s in a whole new phase. Those are remarkable portraits. A triumph of the human spirit is just what it is.”
“It’s not about Jon’s illness, it’s about Jon the maker — the drive to make work,” said Haystack Mountain School of Craft director Stuart Kestenbaum of the extraordinary interest shown in the portraits when they were exhibited at the school last fall. “It’s just uplifting to be around him. His story goes to the heart of why someone would want to make art.”

By the time he got back to Somerville from Maine in December of 2013, Imber was in a wheelchair. In order to communicate, he was using a computer with a voice bank of some 600 phrases and an eye-tracking mouse operated by a reflective dot on his forehead. But still he painted.

Adam Eddy, a young artist, came by each afternoon to mix paints, hoist Imber to his braced feet, and place brushes in his hands. To hold the brush, Imber had a hook made from an old Hopi ring taped to the back of his hand. Slumped forward with his limp arms dangling in front of him, he would move his entire body in order to apply the paint a few strokes at a time. To sign the finished portraits, he used a pen attached to a dowel on headgear, nodding his head to write his name. Jon Imber was painting from the very core of his being.

In Somerville, Jill began joining Jon in his afternoon portrait sessions, sitting beside him and painting the same people at the same time. “We have continued to paint together,” she said, “and this has been deeply comforting to Jon and me.”

In February, Imber had a feeding tube installed in his stomach because he could no longer chew and swallow. The surgery took a toll on his energy level, and his portraits took a Giacometti-like turn, becoming much more sketchy and raw as his condition deteriorated. What he was after, however, was never likeness, but life itself, not imitation but immediacy.

“All that I know about making an image is in the portraits,” he said. “The goal of a painting is power and beauty and surprise.”

The satisfaction Jon Imber got from painting each portrait was palpable, and his friends found the experience of being painted by him both edifying and humbling, and the experience of seeing a group of his paintings truly life-affirming.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said, “when I can’t paint.”

He never found out. Jon Imber died on April 17.