Jon Imber, an acclaimed Massachusetts-based painter who spent decades summering in Stonington, died Thursday, April 17, after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Imber, who was in his early 60s, was born in upstate New York in 1950, and later studied at Cornell University and Boston University, from which he graduated with a master’s of fine arts in 1977. From the 1970s onward, Imber was one of the most well-known painters in New England, known for his vibrant, colorful landscapes pulsing with life and vitality, often depicting the wild, rocky shores of the Stonington-Deer Isle area, where he and his wife, painter Jill Hoy, and son, Gabriel, summered since mid-1980s.
“They were very well known in the painting community,” said Stu Kestenbaum, director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. “Both he and Jill were very articulate. They were really like artists’ artists.”
Imber was diagnosed with ALS in the fall of 2012 and lost the use of his right arm — his painting arm. Undeterred, Imber began to learn how to paint with his left arm, and according to friends and family, painted right up until his final days. According to the Chandler Gallery in Cambridge, Mass., which exhibited his work earlier this year, Imber had completed more than 100 paintings between August 2013 and January 2014, often holding the brush between the backs of his hands and moving his whole body to drag or push the brush across the canvas.
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts displayed for several months the countless portraits Imber completed in the past year.
“He brought an amazing drive and spirit to the work that he did, and was so dedicated to his art. The paintings he did were, he said, not depicting people specifically, but were trying to get to the essence of them,” said Kestenbaum. “He had an amazing ability to see, and see deeply. … He always challenged himself. It’s a terrible disease, but to be around him was uplifting, because he was so alive.”
Imber’s paintings are in collections across New England, including the Farnsworth in Rockland and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In Maine, he was represented by the gWatson Gallery in Stonington and Greenhut Galleries in Portland. He taught undergraduate figure drawing classes at Harvard University for nearly 30 years, and he also maintained a successful commercial career, selling large oil landscapes for tens of thousands of dollars.
A retrospective of Imber’s career, “Jon Imber: Force of Nature,” will open at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport on Saturday, May 24, and will run through July 6. For information and to view more images of Imber’s work, visit jonimber.com.