Embracing the Unexpected

Jon Sarkin featured in Gloucester Daily Times Article


Embracing the unexpected

Embracing the unexpected

Cape Ann artist Jon Sarkin created this mural for Mullen Advertising in Boston. Sarkin is holding an art show and talk this Friday, Dec. 11, at 6 p.m. at Short & Main in Gloucester.

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2015 3:15 am

Cape Ann’s Jon Sarkin is a master of the unexpected, by both fate and design.

For the first time in his hometown, the local artist will host a show and talk this Friday to share his journey and the latest evolution of his artwork.

Sarkin, a chiropractor in his former career, adapted to a life-altering brain injury, from which he emerged a different man, by pouring his ceaseless fountain of creativity onto canvases. In 1988, following surgery, he suffered a stroke.

“My vision of what life is all about is pretty different than most people, and I feel it’s important for me to communicate that unique vision to other people whose lives have turned out different than expected,” he said.

Pulitzer Prize-winning repor
ter Amy Ellis Nutt wrote Sarkin’s biography in a 2011 book titled “Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph.” Two years earlier, Nutt, a Star-Ledger reporter, was named as a finalist for the 2009 Pultizer Prize for feature writing for her article “Jon Sarkin: The Accidental Artist.”

In the aftermath and recovery from his medical trauma, Sarkin said he is privy to an unspoken understanding that almost universally emerges after some type of health crises or near-death experience.








“Because of that, you come back with insights,” he said.

Sarkin’s talk, which will feature some video segments and slides, will encompass his artistic visions, both past and present. He also will share some MRIs of his changed brain. One video will feature his recent commission to create a 20-foot mural titled “Unbound” for Mullen Advertising at its offices at 40 Broad St. in Boston.

His early artwork often incorporated letters and words of some sort, often in random patterns with doodles as the images came to him. But like many artists, Sarkin’s work is always expanding. He has been focused on landscapes as well as portraits, both of which will be part of the art show.

“I’m getting away from the text-based work I’ve done in the past. My painting is more figurative and realistic than it was in the past, but I’m still doing text-based stuff for new endeavors as I explore,” he said.

Sarkin, who has given talks in Massachusetts and Maine, as well as England, has never given a formal talk in Gloucester.

“What this is all about for me is coming back home and dealing with the hometown crowd,” he said.

After the talk, guests are invited to visit his art studio at Fish City Studios, across the street from Short & Main where his talk will be held.

“I feel that in a way my studio is an installation piece,” he said. “People can see where it all happens. It’s all happening right here in the heart of Gloucester. This is about Gloucester. I feel that it’s important for me to do something like this in my hometown and let people who probably wouldn’t experience what I am all about to hear what I’m all about and ask questions.”

Sarkin’s studio space exudes evidence of his compulsive passion to create art, large and small, on any surface, like an old album cover, a scrap paper or an enormous canvas. The helter-skelter trail of papers and other materials all lead to his artistic fountainhead.

Ken Riaf, who traveled to Oxford, England, in 2013 with Sarkin to present a talk of his own, described the artist’s work as “unfiltered.”

“In his talk, he chronicles his journey in a way that’s very entertaining,” said Riaf. “He is outside ‘outsider art.’  His art faucet is welded onto the ‘on’ position.”

Sarkin’s story was part of a review about an Oxford University gallery exhibition, which explored the effects of neurological conditions through art. The 2013 article in The Oxford Student, “Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience,” stated: “After recovery, (Sarkin) experienced compulsions to draw and paint, a condition known as ‘sudden artistic output’; one of only three cases caused by brain injury to be documented.”

Sarkin has overcome both tangible and intangible obstacles.

“I think I can expand people’s definition for what it is to be alive,” Sarkin said. “If I’m doing what I’m doing, it’s my responsibility as a human being to tell people ‘Hey, you can widen your horizons.’ There is a lot more to life than brushing your teeth and paying bills.”

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or via email at

If you go

What: Cape Ann’s Jon Sarkin art show and talk

When: Friday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m.; art show on view through Sunday, Dec. 13.

Where: Short & Main function room, 36 Main St., Gloucester

More: Doors will be open at 6 p.m. to view the show; Sarkin’s talk will begin at 7 p.m.; and from 8 p.m. on, attendees are invited to view his art studio across the



Sarkin’s Unbounded Mural opens in Mullen’s “what if” Ad Campaign

Sarkin’s Unbounded Mural opens in Mullen’s “what if” Ad Campaign


Jon Sarkin in Psychology Today

Check out the original article on Psychology Today 

Psychology Today: Here to Help

Can creative ability suddenly develop following brain damage?
Published on April 29, 2013 by Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. in Media Spotlight


Creativity and the Healing Brain

For Jon Sarkin, it began in 1988 when he suddenly began experiencing tinnitus and abnormally sensitive hearing to certain sounds.   A successful chiropractor with a practice in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, Jon’s condition was linked a blood vessel pressing on his acoustic nerve.  Because of his worsening symptoms, he agreed to a delicate operation carried out by a Pittsburgh neurosurgeon in 1989.  During the operation however, he began hemorrhaging and experienced a massive stroke that left him comatose for weeks.   Doctors removed much of the left side of his brain and he had damage to his cerebellum as well.  Despite a long rehabilitation, he was left permanently deaf in one ear with slurred speech, double vision, and an impaired sense of balance that forced him to walk with a cane.

Though he eventually returned to his practice in 1990, Sarkin found dealing with clients emotionally and physically exhausting despite frequent rest breaks.   He also spent more time “doodling” on his letterhead paper and eventually sold several doodles to the New Yorker.  After selling his practice in 1993, he decided to devote his time to drawing and caring for his three children while his wife acted as his interface with the outside world.  While his neurological symptoms never improved and despite bouts of depression, Jon Sarkin has established a reputation as an artist with his first New York art show in 2003 and a life story that has since been optioned by Tom Cruise’s movie production company.

Can artistic ability suddenly develop as a result of brain disease?   Cases of “sudden artistic output” following brain injury are relatively rare but unexpected artistic talent emerging in brain patients  has been well-documented.   While savant syndrome found in people suffering from severe learning disorders such as autism has become well-recognized through movies such as Rain Man,  acquired savant syndrome, when a new talent suddenly develops in adults following illness is still poorly understood.

Along with brain injury and stroke, cases of acquired savant syndrome have been identified following frontotemporal dementiatemporal lobe disease, and most recently, Parkinson’s Disease.   In a new review article published in Behavioral NeuroscienceRivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University describes a number of  cases of Parkinson’s patients suddenly developing new literary or artistic skills.

Although it is unclear whether this can be related to the actual disease or the dopamine treatment the patients received,  these cases are even more remarkable considering the severe motor problems many of them experience due to Parkinson symptoms.   While some cases involved patients who had artistic ability prior to their illness, onset of Parkinson’s Disease led to a radical change in the quality of the art they produced despite hand tremors or other problems.

According to one patient described by Susan Pinker who had been a regular painter before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, her paintings were enhanced by her illness and even felt that her dopamine medication may have played a role in improving her artistic output.  “The new style is less precise but more vibrant.” she said, adding that “I have a need to express myself more.”

In Parkinson’s patients at least, the fundamental question is whether the new creativity is linked to the disease or dopamine medications such as L-Dopa.   Too much dopamine can lead to Dopamine Dysregulation Syndrome (DDS) with symptoms such as reduced inhibition, sexual acting out, and obsessive compulsive behaviours.  That can include compulsive writing, drawing, or other creative outlets.  In many patients, these creative skills tend to rise as the dopamine levels in their brains increase and can then become reduced as their medications are cut back to curb other unwelcome symptoms.   A recent study examining the link between Parkinson’s disease and creativity suggests that this creativity is completely separate from the impulsive behaviour seen in DDS patients and not a sign of illness as some clinical researchers suggested.   This is welcome news to newly-creative Parkinson’s patients who expressed fear that cutting back on medication might eliminate their creativity.

In exploring possible reasons for increased creativity in Parkinson’s patients, Rivka Inzelberg raised several suggestions that may well apply to other cases of acquired savant syndrome in brain-injured patients as well.   Inzelberg suggests that disinhibition may hold the key to understanding this increased creativity.  Not quite the same thing as impulsivity, disinhibition involves the rejection of social norms and acting out in ways that are “riskier” than they normally would.  Often seen in manic patients, people who are less inhibited are more likely to overcome any doubts they might have about their artistic ability.  They simply write or paint for their own pleasure rather than worrying about what other people might think of their work.  Even in patients with no previous artistic ability, the wish to do something novel can lead to them experimenting with new ways of expressing themselves, often when many of their previous activities are blocked by their symptoms.

Creativity is also a useful way of coping with anxiety since it provides a patient with an outlet to accomplish something worthwhile and to gain confidence.   Many patients with temporal and frontal lobe disorders can find themselves producing new writing or artwork even when it has little importance to anyone but themselves.  One example of this is thehypergraphia found in some temporal lobe patients  involving an overwhelming urge to write.  While some noteworthy cases such as Vincent Van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoevsky are well-known, most hypergraphia sufferers produce millions of words which may never have any literary value.

While patients can be encouraged to engage in painting, drawing, writing or other creative activity as part of occupational therapy, this activity needs to be carefully monitored to make sure that these new skills improve the quality of their lives and not be taken to extremes.

Understanding how this new creative drive affects the healing brain can teach us much about the nature of creativity, whether in brain patients or in neurologically healthy individuals.   These insights may well help researcherrs learn how changes in the brain can lead to enhanced creativity, whether it takes the form of artistic, literary, or musical ability.   Understanding how new talents develop may help us explore some of the many mysteries associated with why creativity happens.

To Check out entire

Jon Sarkin at Law and Water Gallery August 17th.

August 17th at Law and Water Gallery with Jon Sarkin and othersScreen Shot 2013-08-09 at 1.22.38 PM


Jon Sarkin at Art FInder

  • Check out full article at Art Finder.


    Outsider Art, or Art Brut as it was called by Jean Dubuffet who coined the term in the 1940s, was primarily used to categorize art that is outside of the traditional art school, or art world arena. Dubuffet focussed his definition around the art of mentally ill patients and children, however the term has been expanded to include the art of those artists who have not received formal training. As outsider artist Jon Sarkin sees it, this is art made by someone who is free from the forced opinions of art school. Outsider Art is swiftly gaining a huge following, and critics such as Jerry Saltz are calling upon museums to integrate Outsider Art into their collections. Although it is created outside of the conventional art culture, it possesses a unique style, charm and originality, as is seen in the art of Jon Sarkin. We spoke to the artist earlier in the year when he visited us in London.

  • Jon Sarkin philosophises on life, art and fun. “You have to have fun,” he emphasizes with his relaxed American drawl. Restricting himself to working in his studio on a daily 9 – 5 schedule, Sarkin is anything but restrained. He declares that time, space, and reality fall away while he is working. His art flows out of him in a stream of consciousness, uncontrollable, and apparently unstoppable; death is the only thing that can impede him. Attempts to control his art make it unnatural and wrong. Brilliant and witty, his mind works at an incredible wavelength and level, and he acknowledges this, embracing it in his art.

    Sarkin is what is called an acquired savant – his exceptional artistic ability was unleashed when he suffered a stroke at the age of 35. In order to save his life, doctors cut out part of his brain, and in doing so, gave Sarkin a new personality, with new interests, passions and abilities. Deeply aware of the difference between his two selves, Sarkin grieves for what he has lost. When asked if he prefers his present life, the former chiropractor’s answer is no. But despite his frequent nightmares, his approach is practical: “what are you going to do”, he asks.

  • When asked about his inspirations, Sarkin advises actively looking for inspiration. He is constantly inspired; to him a watch catching the light against an-otherwise dark outfit is fascinating. Sarkin is a proponent of rediscovery – he enjoys reviving objects, words, and sights. The repetition and inclusion of words is particularly important in his art, and the constant replication of words brings out new meanings for him. Repeating the word “again” slowly, jarringly, quickly, breaking it into two words, or even into three, and similarly connecting “orang-u-tan” to “aren’t we purple.” Each of the pronunciations and variations fascinates Sarkin, and provides new material for him to work with. Transferring words into images and vice versa, Sarkin’s art is full of energy; he pushes his viewers to look at their worlds through fresh, untainted eyes to rediscover what they think they already know.

    Despite his lack of Fine Art training, Sarkin is well aware of the work and influences of other artists. Considering the similarity in the raw passion and imagery of their pieces, Basquiat is fittingly one of his preferred choices with whom to party; Caravaggio and Da Vinci are the other two, although Damien Hirst is a strong contender. Sarkin realizes that a successful painting is defined by a number of changing boundaries; there is no particular formula for a great painting, although critics have certainly tried to define it, “you can write an infinite number of words and never get down to, but you know when you see it.”


Sarkin in Art Throb

What Drives Them

For some time now, we at Art*Throb have enjoyed the careers of all three artists featured in a discussion Feb. 2 at Flatrock’s Gallery  in Gloucester’s quietly funky hamlet of Lanesville.

First, one of Paul Cary Goldberg’s gritty black and white images from Gloucester’s Cafe Sicilia graced the front cover of our March issue last year. Perhaps our readers remember the portrait that resembled Robert De Niro or Sean Pean, when in fact it was a contemporary cafe regular.  In May, we featured an interview with Jon Sarkin in his messy, but productive studio across the street from the cafe. In November, we let our readers know that Ken Riaf was turning his storefront law office, an old Western Union Telegraph office up the street, into The Law and Water Gallery, featuring work from all three of them in an exhibit exploring the law and the working waterfront.

Jon Sarkin, Paul Cary Goldberg and Ken Riaf

The recent gallery talk in Lanesville brought more than 50 people on a Saturday afternoon to the light and airy space to hear what drives the three artists to create. Their show Driven is on view through Feb. 24.

A word about the new gallery. Owners Cynthia Roth and Anne Marie Crotty say their mission is to carry forth the long tradition of Lanesville — located at the northernmost tip of Gloucester — as home to “a cadre of nationally known painters, illustrators and sculptors who were also an integral part of the community” since the late 19th century.

The gallery aims to showcase “contemporary art, younger artists on the cusp of discovery and the finest of Cape Ann’s old masters.” Also home to a florist, two jewelers, three photographers and two antiquarian book dealers, Flatrocks is a hub of activity surrounded by nature.

A word about the three featured artists. Goldberg produces still lifes, often compared to the work of Dutch master painters. I followed him around the Gloucester waterfront at night more than ten years ago, while he used available harsh floodlighting to capture the rusted underbellies of boats. For this show, Goldberg, a therapist, is exhibiting a meditative, intimate body of work called Etudes. The series could not be more opposite from his ongoing Cafe Sicilia series, a vibrant study of the Italian community in Gloucester right in their social gathering place.

In Etudes, using old bottles and goose eggs found on a farm he has also been photographing, Goldberg has created a blue, watery world that makes one think of life’s beginnings, of fertility and tenuous quiet. As a child, he wrote poetry and found the egg a recurring theme. In his artist statement, he said perhaps he makes art “in an effort to understand, contend with, push back at and counterweight all the sorrow and fury of life.” Or, he says, “Maybe it’s just for the love of it, or for the love others give to me on account of it.”

“Etude #1” by Paul Cary Goldberg

Those who know Sarkin, know his story. An early in life stroke rearranged the way he sees the world and compelled him to make art. Sarkin will be speaking at Oxford University in March about the relationship between brain damage and creativity. Today, the internationally renowned artist works in mixed media at a frenetic pace. This is partly, he says, because the death of his brother in a plane crash forced him to face mortality and work even harder. “I only have so much time on the planet. I’ve got to make my move here,” the angular and intense Sarkin said to the rapt crowd. Sarkin’s work tends to examine the same image over and over. He spoke last week of Caravaggio’s David, a recurring theme. He explained being struck by the look on David’s face as he held the head of Goliath. “He was just taking care of business,” he said, much like each of these men in the show.

Moonlight Serenade by Jon Sarkin

Many at the talk wanted Ken Riaf to discuss the way film influences his small scale assemblages, which literally contain the legal, the political, the environmental and the romantic. In addition to being an attorney who has focused on anti-poverty work and fisheries policy, Riaf has been a commercial fisherman and longshoreman, is an adjunct professor at Endicott College and produced with Gloucester filmmaker Henry Ferrini, Polis Is This about poet Charles Olson.

Riaf’s boxes feature little found objects and small plastic people in cinematic scenes that can be construed differently when examined from multiple angles. Familiar Gloucester scenes that loom large in the mind of locals are captured here in the miniscule. Backlit scenes feature a man and woman standing on beach stones in a parting pose in On the Rocks while Professional Courtesy gives us three suits in an underwater scene with massive (it’s all relative) sharks swimming nearby.

By Ken Riaf

Riaf insists there are not many artists — perhaps Joseph Cornell, a constant comparison — who must spend their lives thinking INSIDE the box. Just as the scale of his work is small, to the point are the words that accompany them: Gimme, gonna and ‘Bro Can You Spare a Dime. This patois comes “from all over,” Riaf says, from “The Bahamas, the cit-hey… the watery part of the world, and from the corner — as my pal sez  ‘I didn’t hang out at the corner, I’m from the corner.’”

As the evening sky turned an azure blue, matching the hue of Goldberg’s photographs, the audience, comprising many of Gloucester’s most recognizable characters, artists and musicians, posed thoughtful questions to each of the three. They inquired about the compulsion to create, the inner critic, outer critics, inspiration, vulnerability and process.

Finally, a woman asked what it’s like to create in a community that really appreciates art. And most in the room knew the answer.

Dinah Cardin is founder of North Shore Art*Throb.