Life Through Paint & Canvas

Gail McCarthy, Gloucester Daily Times

Two local residents who have led divergent and complicated lives have come together to throw a party of sorts to celebrate life itself through paint and canvas.

The planning started when Jane Winsor, one of the first students at Montserrat College in 1971, decided to show her artwork for the first time ever. She invited her friend Jon Sarkin to share the space at 18 Pleasant St. The result of their efforts can be seen at the corner gallery, which jumps to life with color and images.

The two met about 20 years ago in Gloucester. Winsor worked at Musician magazine and Sarkin was a chiropractor who had Winsor as a client.

Both are 51. The intertwining threads in their lives run from the simple to the complex. She has a brother named Jon. He has a sister named Jane. Each faced lives filled with medical challenges.

Winsor was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer, at the age of 26. After 15 years living cancer-free, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. This was only the start of other canceres, followed by a long path of surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments she undergoes even today.

Sarkin’s life changed nearly overnight when he suffered the ravages of post-operative bleeding in the brain and a stroke at age 36 following a surgery to repair an enlarged blood vessel pressing on the acoustic nerve leading to his ear. When Sarkin found he could no longer work as a chiropractor, he turned to doodling full time.

While Sarkin’s life has taken a high profile — his tale has been featured in the pages of GQ and London newspapers, his drawings in the New Yorker, and Tom Cruise’s production company has optioned his life story — Winsor only just earlier this year decided to throw herself back into painting.

Over the past six months, Winsor created 40 paintings, of which most were sold when her show opened Nov. 21 at the Pleasant Street gallery. Seven other paintings she created before 1983. The canvases, large and small, feature a variety of images, from still-lifes, to orchards, to Brazilian beach scenes to two paintings depicting her body.

“I stopped painting for a long time. I had other things to do. I was working. I bought a house. I was a creative director for a marketing company and doing freelance work,” Winsor said. “A lot of energy went into the East Gloucester house, which became the creative outlet.”

As a young woman, Winsor said, art came easy to her and she painted full time. But when she received her first diagnosis of cancer, she shifted gears to look for full-time employment. That’s when she went to work for Gordon Baird and Sam Holdsworth at Gloucester-based Musician magazine.

“I was not going to let cancer define who I am. I worked and went to radiation therapy every day, and I’m thankful for their support,” she said.

Someone meeting the energetic woman with short blond hair would never imagine she was fighting cancer. Her cheerful demeanor belies the pain and suffering she endured, including mastectomies and surgery to remove her sternum.

One local resident knows vigor well.

“Jane is an extraordinary individual,” said Gloucester Mayor John Bell. “She is the poster child for the idea that if you can overcome your fears, anything is possible. I have the highest respect for her, and she has never allowed her physical challenges to interfere with her creativity and relationships.”

Winsor worked for Bell’s company, CPS Direct, for about a decade.

“She ahs a great appreciation for life,” Bell said. “I never heard Jane complain about anything, other than just moving ahead.”

Winsor does not see herself as a victim, but as a human being making the most of life.

“I’m hard to kill. I keep bouncing back, but I got serious recently about what I wanted to do,” she said. “I pulled the plug on everything in March with a diagnosis of a metastasis to the lung. I finally arrived at a point when I said ‘Wait a minute. Why am I spending more than a minute doing something I don’t need to do?'”

That day she rented a space for an art studio on Center Street and pulled out her box of oil paints that had been stored away, untouched for 25 years.

“I spent the day twisting off the caps of tubes. About 90 percent were still good,” she said. “This was about getting started right now, not about how ready I can get. I just wanted to put brush to canvas. It was a complete blast. Most of the time I was painting what was right smack in front of me. I threw a handful of pistachios down because they were in my pocket so I painted them.”

She painted from pictures and she painted several self portraits with a mirror. Although two large canvases show her scarred body, Winsor cautioned a viewer not to take it too seriously because her intent was not to portray a dark image.

“It’s actually beautiful. I was just painting what was in front of me,” she said. “But I didn’t go paint outside because so many people do that and do it really well. I just wanted to be in a studio pushing paint around and the reward was there. Every day was such fun painting. I was pushing through and finishing paintings but then there were too many paintings. Maybe, I thought, I had enough work for a show.”

That became a mission for Winsor, who had never shown her work before, she said.

“There’s no way to know what’s going to happen next. I’ve seldom been incapacitated by a diagnosis of cancer. An awful lot of people live with a lot more discomfort.”

Winsor wasted no time in finding a space to create a show and wanted to share it with someone. She thought of her dear friend Sarkin, whose studio was just across the street from the space. Sarkin, always eager to show his work, obliged, with each artist hosting a three-week solo exhibit.

Sarkin’s work features graphic design, collage, poetry and musings. Sarkin’s show, which opens Sunday, will feature more than 100 pieces of his work. He wants to transform the space into an Arabian bazaar of sorts.

The path that led to his current vocation is a mixed blessing.

“I do not have the luxury of having a sharp dividing line between my life and my art. There’s always a very blurry delineation between my life and my art. I wish it was less fuzzy, but that’s just the way it is. My art is visual representation of that reality,” Sarkin said. “People say my life is my art — I’m the poster child for that statement. The brain is pretty much a black box. But I can’t shut off my ideas like you can shut off your ideas. I can’t focus, and my art is a representation of that inability to focus and the constant fleeting images that I can’t shut off.”

The resulting artwork, he said, makes a poignant statement of what he’s lost.

Ever since he was a little boy, he likes to draw. “But then it was an avocation. Now it’s a vocation,” Sarkin said. “This is a perfect example of how my life has become my art.”

In spite of their driven desire to art, the two artists share an important message about how people live their lives. “Don’t put off doing something you find enjoyment in,” Winsor said. “There’s no reason not to do something now. Just give it a try and get out of your own way.”

Winsor remains steadfast in her resolve to make the most out of life.

“I don’t get grumpy anymore,” she said. “There’s no time for bad moods. I have little patience for grumpy. People gripe when things could be a whole lot worse.”