Jon Imber’s Left Hand

Jon Imber’s Left Hand   –   a Review by Kevin Freeman

John Imber, Self Portrait

John Imber, Self Portrait

I am often grateful for social media – especially today. A few weeks ago I followed a link on Facebook asking for financial help on the completion of a film on an artist with Maine connections.

I landed on Maine Masters and was immediately taken with a video teaser about Jon Imber. John is living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and continues to paint. The disease has limited his dexterity, and will eventually cause his demise.

I was so intrigued by the story, I sent links to friends and looked for more info. As luck would have it, a few weeks later I saw another post on Facebook for a screening of the film on Sunday, March 23, 2014. It was finished and to be shown at the Portland Museum of Art as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival. It was also going to be screened on Wednesday, March 26, at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.

Sunday didn’t work out, but Wednesday did. My wife Sandra and I drove up to the Salt screening room on Congress Street in Portland, Maine. The documentary started at 6 pm. There were about 20 others in the small, red-walled, red-ceilinged, red-floored and red-curtained theatre.

As I ascertained from the teaser, Jon Imber is a unique person. He is a secure, sincere and dedicated artist who knows his life will be cut short; yet his spry wit and twinkling eye defy our uneasiness.

Richard Kane has directed a rare glimpse into a most often personal space, creating art.  He has presented us with a vibrant and celebratory account of a man who understands his days are few. It is further enhanced by Imber’s character and his astounding love of being alive. We realize some would curl up and succumb to the prospect of the dire diagnosis. Jon’s wife, Jill Hoy, has a significant presence in the documentary. She is Jon’s primary support and his fellow painter. They talk and discuss, flip canvases and clean brushes as though they are one mind.

Jon Imber’s Left Hand draws a loosely-crafted portrait of a painter who has a similar style. I watched in amazement as Jon brushed bold vibrant strokes onto a canvas with a brush gripped by will. His body moves from side to side, shoulders tilting in order to make his otherwise hanging hands move. All the while he jokes with uncanny wit. Friends, family, and business associates abundantly flow in and out of the screen, all endeared to Jon.

There is little acting if any; everything is real. The paintings, the relationship of husband and wife, and the view into their personal space were captivating. The weight of Jon’s disease is understated, and it is difficult to come to terms with whether his ALS is a detriment or a gift.

Jon Imber’s inability to attend to brush strokes as he so craftily did for so long is disturbing, yet we become liberated by his fortitude, grace and humor. The darkness of the situation is somehow erased, exposing the white of the page barely leaving smudges.

It is hard to imagine, with so many physical impediments, how he moves on in a happy- go-lucky way, shaping his misgivings into blessings and drawing the viewer into a net of admiration.

There is no doubt, in my mind, a paradox to Richard Kane’s view into the life of Jon Imber. When the camera stops rolling and the guests leave, a man with a terrible disease is left to cope with his mortality. On the other hand, we see, he has painted his way into immortality.

Jon was a graduate student at BU under Philip Guston and later taught drawing at Harvard. He has spent a lifetime creating and teaching art. I am grateful to have had this glimpse into his life at such a sensitive time.