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    Jon Sarkin Featured in Jared Charney Photography

    Click here to view Jon Sarkin Featured in Jared Charney Photography 

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    What took you so long? Charney and DiGregorio

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    Jon Sarkin

    That flying fish didn’t as much speak to me; that wicked metallic tuna up and gaffed my psyche.

    I’d never been to Gloucester. Not until an iron-cold January afternoon last year. Nor had I heard of artist Jon Sarkin.

    Yet here I was, on Gloucester’s sinewy Main Street: The aforementioned brutalist sculpture, poised above Sarkin’s Fish City Studio had pulled me in as if it wielded some preternatural force.

    Inasmuch, Jon Sarkin wasn’t making himself, or his art particularly accessible. The picture window that fronted Sarkin’s studio was all but hermetically veiled by Boston Globe pages: 30-year old broadsheets turned yellow-brown that straight-armed the casual observer, or mildly curious.

    But that wouldn’t be my fate.

    Craning my neck drastically to the right, I found a maybe two-inch gap in the window covering. Reposed against what appeared to be the rear of the narrow, hard-edged workspace, I could discern a hooded figure. The latter seemed more Unabomber than Hopper or Homer.

    Before I knew it, some synchronous gyre, some unforeseen vortex had lifted me up the cement stoop. Pushing my way in the door, a debris field that spoke to an explosion of mad genius spread before me.

    All over the wooden floor, on nine foot lengths of canvas stretched across facing walls, stacked haphazardly into every dusty corner lay Sarkin’s oeuvre: a distilling of Basquiat meets Steadman meets Fluxist-influenced paintings and sketches. Save for a few, all were stippled in bursts of verse, as though Sarkin sampled fellow Nor’easters Jack Kerouac and Jonathan Richman.

    Noticing big dollops of bright paint on his sweatshirt, I knew this was Sarkin. Yet rather than introduce himself, he asked in a tone equally deadpan as it was bemused, “What took you so long?”

    I’ve been in the thrall of Gloucester’s magus-conjurer ever since. —Michael DiGregorio

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    Jon Sarkin at Law and Water

    Check out Jon Sarkin’s work at Law and Water Gallery. 

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    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.

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    Sarkin’s work for sale on Esty.

    Sarkin’s work for sale on Esty.Get it quick!

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    Interview with Amy Ellis Nutt- “Shadows Bright as Glass”

    Interview with Amy Ellis Nutt

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    Sarkin at Law and Water

    Check out Jon’s art at Law and Water Gallery


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    Sarkin Photos

    Great photos of Sarkin as taken by Liam King over the years.  Check them out at jsarkin.com/photos

    If you’re interested in high-resolution photos of Jon’s art, check out at jsarkin.com/art.

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    Boston Globe Review

    Showcasing the work of an outsider artist


    Boston Articles
    January 31, 2012|By Cate McQuaid
    • Jon Sarkins Clinched Teeth, currently on exhibit at VSA Massachusetts Open Door Gallery.
    Jon Sarkins Clinched Teeth, currently on exhibit at VSA Massachusetts… (Lorri Berenberg )

    Maybe you’ve heard of Jon Sarkin. A former chiropractor, he had a brain hemorrhage back in the late 1980s, followed by a stroke that nearly killed him, and he came through the ordeal an artist with an antic need to create. He has received a lot of media attention, not so much for his art as for his story, and last year a biography of Sarkin came out, “Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey From Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph,’’ by Amy Ellis Nutt.

    But what about his art? Sarkin, who works out of a studio in Gloucester, has an exhibit up at VSA Massachusetts Open Door Gallery. VSA Massachusetts is a state-funded agency supporting disabled artists. Independent curator Lorri Berenberg put the exhibit together; she specializes in fostering the work of outsider artists – that is, artists who are self-taught, and sometimes disabled. They break into the art establishment from outside.

    “Jon Sarkin: Line by Line,’’ features two distinct bodies of work, one quite captivating, the other muddy and unrealized. The first reads like a wild, internal architecture of lists, patterns, and nervy characters. Text perseverates over most of these pieces.

    In “They That Go Down,’’ the phrase “They that go down to the sea in ships’’ hovers at the top, above a wide-jawed cartoon figure with one big, round eye and a blue Mohawk. Sarkin scrawls “Utah’’ repeatedly over this one, and he name checks Keith Moon, Vermeer, and “Crumb Crumb Crumb Crumb.’’

    These works are crisp, wacky, and unnerving. All the stray parts, the obsessive lines and patterns, the occasional dirty washes of color that recall cotton candy or scorched earth, coalesce into a muttering, demanding whole. There’s a vision here, one that gnaws at you and pokes at your sleeve.

    For “Clinched Teeth,’’ Sarkin leaves the text out, and populates his page with an oddball gallery of his figures, who merge into an overall scene that is part city, part machine. They recall the nervous energy and defiance of R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman. The result is muscular and demanding.


    <a href=”http://articles.boston.com/2012-01-31/arts/31008278_1_disabled-artists-outsider-artists-scrawls” target=”_blank”>Read the full review on Boston.com</a>



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    Harvard CHS Research Bulletin

    Mental Images
    January 18, 2012 Posted by Alexandra Pappas under Art/Archaeology, Epigraphy/Papyrology
    In this post, I will address directly the question I first posed: What do ancient Greek inscriptions and a chiropractor’s cerebral hemorrhage have in common? To do so, I’ll gloss the story of former chiropractor Jon Sarkin and his current artistic oeuvre. This topic is of great interest to me in part for how it probes the relationship (if one exists at all) between cultural and biological factors in creative output. I find the contemporary and heated debate between culture and biology fascinating, especially for its implications across disciplines. My particular focus within the larger issue is on the impetus to integrate words and images and what drives it – are the roots to be found in one’s immediate cultural context, does the biology of the brain dominate, or should we see both factors in tandem play here? In a turn that has taken me far from my traditional training as a Classicist, strands of my recent research have engaged the fields of neuroscience and the related and relatively new “neuroaesthetics.”

    Jon Sarkin’s story has been masterfully and thoroughly documented by Amy E. Nutt, first in a series of prize-winning articles, and most recently in the biography, Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man’s Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph (Free Press; 2011). His past and present experiences are also fully accessible on the websites, http://www.nj.com/starledger/sarkin/ and http://jsarkin.com/, replete with images of his art. In short, Sarkin was a practicing chiropractor when he suffered first a brain hemorrhage and, after the surgery to repair it, a massive stroke. Since then, Sarkin has been singularly obsessed with creating visual art, and exhibits the compulsive behavior termed by some neuroscientists as “sudden artistic output”: like a few others who have suffered brain trauma, he is compelled to spend the majority of his time creating art with apparently little choice in the matter. Of particular interest to me and my study of ancient Greek words and images, is that much of Sarkin’s work is mixed-media, combining words and images in critical and informative ways. I am left wondering how this may be relevant to my study of the ancient material.

    The image below is representative of Sarkin’s style (#5836):

    Crowded with rich verbal references to various visual, literary, and musical artistic traditions, Sarkin’s composition enriches the communication of words by their placement relative to figural images just as it enriches the communication of images by their interaction with words – there is inextricable and symbiotic exchange between these media, each deeply implicated in the other. Among many others worth critical attention, I point out the diagonal slant of the red “LEONARDO DAVINCI # SEVEN” across the large profile talking head and the “PICASSO” and “KLEE” in off-set panels just in front of the figure’s eyes. I find the spatial arrangement of these words in relation to the image of the head and its sensory organs significant. For example, both Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee worked in the Cubist tradition, which at its core toys with shifting planes and perspectives of vision. So, too, the “LEONARDO” inscription is imprinted across the head as if from cerebellum to frontal lobe, passing over a concealed ear and continuing its path just above the eye and beyond. On one hand, this is a most fitting trajectory for a reference to an artist who is renowned for his extraordinary range of interdisciplinary learnedness, including his advancements in the field of optics and his habit of writing private notes in the technique known as “mirror writing.” But I also point out that the “LEONARDO” inset originates at very nearly the same place where Sarkin’s surgeon first opened up his skull to operate on his brain, and so we may also want to view it as a vivid graphic representation of his own neural traumas – whose symptoms include compulsively creative thought, fractured vision, compromised hearing, and altered speech – and as a marker of the physical locus of their generation.

    It should be clear by this point that my analysis of Sarkin’s image resonates with the readings I have rendered of the word-image exchanges on ancient Greek pots. Another parallel with the ancient material can be made of Sarkin’s treatment of words or letters as visual pattern-makers, as able to shift seamlessly from legible word to semantic nonsense. This is evident in the column of “M-words” on the left-hand margin and their visual counterpart in the right, where zig-zags give way to the repeated word “JAH,” which retains the geometric contours of the abstract shape. But how much can we or should we press any parallelism between Sarkin’s experience and creative impulses and those of the ancient Greeks, also engaged in word-image interplay?

    On one hand, Sarkin’s compulsion to generate intermedial references to the artistic movements that have influenced him is firmly embedded in his specific cultural context. And given the particular artistic traditions he cites, with their emphasis on Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and the like, it is no surprise that Sarkin engages questions of what words and images do independently or in relation to one another, nor is he unique in doing so. But the changes to his brain wrought by hemorrhage and stroke seem to have invited, even compelled, his increased expression in exactly these kinds of multivalent exchanges, and so we might also understand them as betraying his underlying neural physiology. One scientific explanation for Sarkin’s post-stroke artistic compulsion is the “split-brain” effect: because his left hemisphere has been damaged, as a stress response his right hemisphere works twice as hard to compensate. Indeed, various aspects of #5836 seem to render this phenomenon graphically, as in the rigidly profile views of both large and small talking figures: Sarkin limits the audience view to one half of each head, but conveys the general notion of a head made whole since we see the right side of the large head and the left side of the small one in a kind of split-screen arrangement; the notion of completeness is present, but it remains firmly unrealized. Binary images such as these, along with the general interplay between words and images throughout Sarkin’s art, make me wonder if he thus instinctually strives to bridge a divide between halves – of brain, of identity, of self – he perceives but stubbornly resists. This is purely speculative, of course, but it does require careful thought about the various factors motivating creative production.

    Cognitive neuroscientists have studied in what ways the brain is engaged in the acts of reading words and of “reading” images. There are some very compelling data that suggest a great deal of neural overlap in these activities, in particular for brains new to reading words. It is to these data, and their theoretical place within the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, that I want to turn in my next post. For while I have been initially tempted to assert that – just as for Jon Sarkin, so, too, for ancient Greek vase-painters – both cultural factors and elements of neurophysiology inform such symbiotic medial exchange as I have been investigating, it remains to introduce some of the scientific data and to consider the responses to them by such critics as Alva Noë and Noah Hutton, among others.

    What, then, do ancient Greek inscriptions and a chiropractor’s cerebral hemorrhage have in common? Potentially a great deal, and it is to this that I will turn more critically in next month’s post.

    Check out the CHS Harvard feature article page

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