The Awakening of Dr. Jonathan Sarkin ’71, Artist

Renee Walker, The Pingry Review
When poet and rocker Patti Smith said, “In art and dream, proceed with abandon; in life, proceed with balance and stealth,” she may have been describing the life of Jonathan Sarkin ’71. His life, artistry, and vision are a seemingly complex balance between chaos and control. Thus too are his artistic works, which he even finds challenging to verbalize before settling on a “cross between the Wall Street Journal and Captain Kangaroo.”

He draws influence from Warhol, Picasso, da Vinci, Pollock, and Dr. Seuss, whom he says, “intuitively got it, the whole deal – words and illustrations – and never looked back. The guy was very cool.” Much like Seuss’ world, Jon and his works go against the grain, what he calls a “disagreement belief,” a belief in something against the status quo or what is self-evident. His thoughts are communicated uncensored, and he speaks in riddles and codes, with metaphors and a stream of consciousness that is both fascinating and derivative. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” he says, quoting Danish philosopher Søeren Kierkegaard, then takes it to another level, “Dizziness is the anxiety of freedom; freedom is the dizziness of anxiety.” His whimsical wordplay is inspired by such sayings, which he often incorporates in his creations.

As far as he can remember, Jon has always had an interest in art and could often be found doodling within his thoughts and free time, but back then he was a different person. After graduating from Pingry, he decided to follow a more academic path and in 1975 got a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Pennsylvania, master’s degree in environmental science from Rutgers University in 1977, and graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa in 1980. In 1982, he opened his own chiropractic practice and spent 14 years in the field … until one golf game changed everything.

In October 1988, after taking a few swings, Jon noticed a persistent ringing in his ear – tinnitus – and what was later diagnosed as a swollen blood vessel pressing against an acoustic nerve. After a surgical attempt to correct the problem, Jon suffered a massive stroke, underwent another medical attempt – the removal of the left side of his cerebellum – and spent two months in a semi-comatose state. After this ordeal, he was faced with a number of life-long after-effects. Jon lost his hearing in his left ear and has diplopia (double vision), slurring when speaking quickly, and a diminished sense of taste and smell. In addition, his proprioception has been greatly reduced, and his overall balance is poor. He was altered, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Jon made an attempt to return to his practice in 1990, but his attention was drawn towards creating images – painting and drawing, so in 1994, he decided to sell his practice and devoted his time to studio work. He says, “I didn’t decide to leave the medical field; the field decided to leave me.”

An awakening has taken place in Jon Sarkin, and the newness of his vision is reflected in his art – the bold use of color, subject matters, and words. He works in an obsessive-compulsive manner, as he continuously draws different versions of the Chrysler building and Cadillac tailfins using paints, pens, colored pencils, and/or ink. He describes it as a calling. “A thing that the originator of the calling gains power from, e.g., Zuni American Indian ‘fetishes’ … I get power, of an indefinably mystical transcendental quality, from these images. That’s why I’m drawn to them, am compulsively obsessed with them. They are elemental in a very literal sense.” It is a seemingly symbiotic relationship which compels Jon to spend six hours a day in his studio in Gloucester, MA, working on various projects at once. “If you count the time I spend actually working, the time I spend thinking about my work, and the time I spend dreaming about my work, my schedule is exactly 168 hours per week. This is not a joke. I am extremely agenda-driven in an ‘elliptical’ way,” he is quoted as saying.

Jon’s works have garnered lots of attention, and he thanks his sister and Vanity Fair editor, Jane Sarkin O’Connor ’77 for her assistance. Jane suggested that he submit his “doodles” to the New Yorker magazine, which loved his works and purchased a few. Since then, Jon has been featured in a number of publications, including The Star-Ledger and GQ magazine. After seeing the 1997 GQ article, Tom Cruise’s production company, Cruise-Wagner (a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures), bought the rights to his life story, with the possibility of Tom playing Jon. A screen play has already been written.

Not to be sidetracked by Hollywood, Jon continues to show and auction his works around the country, including New Jersey, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and in his hometown of Gloucester, where he resides with his unbelievably supportive wife, Kimberly and “very cool” children, Curtis David, Robin Page, and Caroline Ruth. He will also return to Pingry’s campus this fall, where his works will be displayed in the Hostetter Arts Center gallery from October 27 through November 27. “I look forward to coming back,” he says.

In a final analysis of Jon Sarkin, when asked what would he do if he had a second chance, he answers, “Everything happens for a reason…there’s no looking back.”