Line by Line

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Jon Sarkin works on a painting while David Patterson plays guitar during a Sept. 23 performance at the Spaulding R. Aldrich Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill.

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NORTHBRIDGE —  Artist Jon Sarkin stands silently before the blank canvas. Barefoot, in paint-splashed jeans and a sweatshirt, he surveys the multicolored acrylic dollops on a small table beside him. Suddenly, classical guitarist David Patterson begins to play the first mysterious twangs of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Prelude No. 4,” and Mr. Sarkin picks up his brush.

“My back will be to the audience and I’ll try not to have them influence a whole lot of what I’m doing,” Mr. Sarkin said during a private reception about an hour prior to the performance. “But there’s going to be part of my brain that knows there’s an audience watching what I’m doing. (As for) how it influences what I’m going to do — I don’t know. I enjoy the feeling of not knowing.”

The performance Sept. 23 was part of “Line by Line”— an ongoing exhibition of Mr. Sarkin’s work at the Spaulding R. Aldrich Gallery at Alternatives’ Whitin Mill in Whitinsville. Alternatives, an agency with 55 locations around Central Massachusetts, seeks to improve the lives of people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities by helping them find valued roles in the community. As part of its mission, Alternatives seeks to break down barriers between the people they serve and the general public.

“We have found that cultural activities are where people are most likely to drop their guard,” said Alternatives’ Director of Community Outreach Tom Saupe, who said the Sarkin exhibition, which runs through Nov. 16, had been very successful. “You go to a jazz concert and you assume the person sitting next to you is there because they love jazz, too. You already have one point of contact. And relationships start that way.”

Largely for that reason, Alternatives now has, in addition to its art gallery, a theater, several artist studios, and a summer series of outdoor plays and concerts.

“It’s a giveback to the public to make a cultural center here in the Blackstone Valley, but also at the same time on the mission-driven side, it gives the opportunity for the public and the individuals we serve to come together in a joint venture,” Mr. Saupe said. “A cultural event that everybody, no matter what their ability, can enjoy.”

Mr. Sarkin’s work is especially suited to Alternatives’ mission, given his fascinating back story and rise to prominence in the art world. In 1989, Mr. Sarkin was a successful chiropractor with a wife and a young son. In August of that year, he suffered a stroke during brain surgery to treat tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. While recovering, he became overwhelmed by a compulsion to draw and he has, in the ensuing decades, become an internationally renowned artist.

“We were very excited to have him,” Mr. Saupe said. “Not only is the art of tremendous quality, but his story, with his own disability of actually having lost part of his cerebellum and brain damage and still being able to turn his life around and become a complete success is the sort of thing that we would like to provide, maybe on a slightly smaller scale, to the people that we serve.”

Alternatives’ Executive Director Dennis H. Rice agreed that Mr. Sarkin’s story can serve as inspiration for people dealing with disabilities.

“The people we serve have lots of challenges because of their disabilities,” he said. “And our job is, in some ways, to help them to develop a new life purpose, to get beyond the catastrophic effect of their disability. And clearly Jon has done this in a very profound way.”

Mr. Sarkin, 59, who lives in Gloucester, said he doesn’t think about those things. His attitude is, since he cannot control how people view him, it isn’t productive to worry about it. At the same time, everybody wants to succeed.

“There is something universal about human beings that when someone says, ‘You did a really good job,’ they like that,” he explained. “You did a really good job spelling ‘cat.’”

During the performance, Mr. Sarkin created two paintings in front of an audience of about 50 while Mr. Patterson breezed through a selection of classical pieces, in a set designed to allow visual art and music to share the stage. It’s an experiment the pair had tried before, when filmmaker Chris Peters captured their collaboration for a series of online shorts.

“He taped us working together, but there was no audience at all,” Mr. Sarkin said. “We did it and we thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ We thought it would be cool to do in front of a large audience.”

“Let’s say you’re working and the audience is like ‘This sucks,’” he explains. “(If) you feel the energy of that harsh negative judgment it’s going to influence your painting. As opposed to if the audience is thinking. ‘This is so cool,’ and you feel that energy.”

As a musician who has performed as a soloist and with orchestras for more than 20 years, Mr. Patterson — who splits his time between Boston and Asia — knows quite well the difficulties and thrills of playing before an audience. He also has a strong connection with Mr. Sarkin’s work and a conviction that art can be interdisciplinary.

“Jon is an incredibly spontaneous artist,” he said. “When we did this the first time with the video, even though it was planned out, we very much felt like we were collaborating, like in a band together. We felt like we were actually connected as we were doing it.”

Mr. Sarkin, who said he listens to music “incessantly” while he paints, agrees. He has worked closely with the Boston-bred alt-rock band Guster on numerous projects, including a similar live collaboration.

“(This is) very different because I’ve been more of an accompanist with Guster,” he said. “The show’s about Guster, and I’m just part of the show. This is a lot different, this is more equal billing.”

It is hard to say how the music and art informed one another. At the very least, the hour-and-30-minute-long performance gave the audience some insight into the mind of a gifted artist, with an intimate concert from a master guitarist thrown in for good measure. One thing I believe the entire audience can agree on: We’d love to see them do it again.

Mr. Sarkin, very focused, seemed to pay no attention to either the audience or the music. When Mr. Patterson took a short break, the only sound that filled the theater was the oddly hypnotic scratching of the paintbrush against the canvas.

Ironically, the best example of the art and music coming together occurred after Mr. Sarkin had finished painting. He stood, arms crossed with his back to the audience, silently evaluating his second completed painting of the performance. Mr. Patterson, meanwhile, sped furiously through the climactic final minutes of Carlo Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba.”

One artist was as still as can be while the other employed all his dexterity and talent to bring the song to its exhilarating peak. As the song ended and the audience erupted in applause, Mr. Sarkin glanced back, startled. A man pulled from his trance.

When asked whether he had a favorite piece, or if he was able to stop and admire his own work, Mr. Sarkin shrugged.
“Not too much,” he said. “That seems like a waste of time.”

For such a prolific artist, who in less than two hours could create two polished pieces that would hang proudly in any gallery, it may seem that way.

It is likely that by the time the audience swarmed the stage, craning to get a close look at the still-wet paintings, Mr. Sarkin had, in some way, already moved on to his next piece.

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