Near the end of Imber’s Left Hand, the 2014 film about artist Jon Imber’s struggle to keep on painting as he was dying from ALS, there is a beautiful scene of a show of the hundreds of portraits that Jon painted, in the last year of his life, of friends in Boston and Maine who came by to keep him company and to help. Some of those friends, and others who had never met Jon, gathered together, teary-eyed, at 13FOREST Gallery after watching the Arlington International Film Festival’s screening of the film.
The director, Maine filmmaker Richard Kane, and his wife and co-producer, the pottery artist Melody Lewis-Kane, spoke about the challenges of filming Jon as he swiftly declined in his last months of life, and the incredible outpouring of love and community support.
I spoke about my long friendship with Jon from the time we were both art students, through the exciting Boston art world of the 1980’s, through his marriage to artist Jill Hoy – who is the film’s co-star and guiding light – and their family life in Somerville with summers in Maine, to the last heroic months as Jill helped Jon find ways to keep on painting.
Jon was always fascinated by the play between abstraction and figuration in painting – between what he was painting and the paint itself – between life and art.
His breakthrough show was the 1979 Figuration Now at the ICA, when it was still in the old firehouse on Boylston Street. It was a time when young artists were emerging from the heavy hand of abstract expressionism and beginning to paint from life, from nature, and from dreams. He made his name with mythical self-portraits, but began painting landscapes when he met Jill in the 1990’s, then surprised everybody again when his landscapes become more and more abstract. During his progressive illness, which forced him to simplify, he returned to figuration and spent his last months painting portraits of friends, and flowers.
Jon always had a vase of flowers in his studio, and he kept the flowers for a long time. Even in Maine, when there were hundreds of flowers in Jill’s garden, just outside his studio door, Jon would keep the flowers in his studio until the leaves were brown and the petals falling to the floor. He often talked about how the great Dutch still life painters of gorgeous fruits and flowers would always include an insect eating a leaf. He saw the beauty in the transformation from life to death – a beauty that came across very powerfully in the film, which followed him through his last months, as he struggled to keep on painting until just a few days before he died.
The two paintings at 13FOREST, on loan for the occasion from Alpha Gallery in Boston, are both of flowers, beautiful in their chaos and decay. The paint becomes the flowers as the flowers become a painting. The boundary between object and image begins to disintegrate; the gestures become fluid.
In these late paintings – and in the film – there’s a dance between art and life, birth and death. That’s what makes art universal. As Bob Dylan – Jon’s favorite poet – said: “Anyone not busy being born is busy dying.”
Rebecca Nemser's writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Art New England, Boston Magazine and the Boston Phoenix.