From December through April of last year, I took care of a painter in Somerville, Mass. who was dying of ALS. Jon Imber was talented and a visionary, and had a particularly unparalleled eye for color. It was deeply depressing to watch him gradually decline. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks the nervous system, progressively debilitating all physical function while leaving the mind lucid. In a cruel twist of fate, Jon’s ALS first appeared in his right hand, his painting hand. This presented Jon with the difficult decision of whether to continue to paint. Yet, if anything, Jon was determined. In spring 2013, Jon forged ahead and switched to using his left hand. Later that summer he conceded mixing his own colors to directing an assistant. Then, in late August, he took advantage of a steady stream of well-wishers and began to use both hands to paint portraits. By December, when I entered the picture in a serious fashion, making a painting required heroic effort.
During the process of incrementally adapting to the disease, Jon had a surprising revelation: he was, by his account, making the best paintings of his life. In what seemed like an anticipation of ALS, Jon’s style had slowly been loosening, as the gestural painting of de Kooning, Bonnard, and Cezanne overtook a tighter, more psychological style of Philip Guston as his prime influence. The canvases had become more abstract and fluid, and landscape had become his primary subject matter. So as he strove for that delicate balance between intention and serendipity, ALS proved an unlikely ally. With ALS, as Jon put it, “there’s no leaning on facility. It’s like raw emotion. I have no way I can do anything but kind of raw expressive gesture. And I’m very proud of it. It’s what I always wanted in painting.”
Working with Jon has made me think about the often-conflicting forces of serendipity and intention in my work. By most accounts, the majority of my work leans toward intention over serendipity. The grass drawings are an exercise in rigorous control. But the cyanotypes present another method—let things happen and look for the best result. It’s interesting to think about exploiting that tension as I move forward. It seems we often find the greatest beauty at either end of the spectrum. In the accretion of facility and detail to the utmost, and in the momentary capturing of nature’s best impulses.