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Stroke Of Genius: Jon Sarkin Is An Artist. And No One Knows Exactly How It Happened.

Amy Nutt, NJ Star Ledger

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — This is what you need to know about Jon Sarkin: Nothing is what it seems. He listens to Mahler, and “Moon River,” on the CD player in his art studio; a recent pickup at a local book store included the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and a medical text on anatomy. He is prone to sending his artwork for free through the mail to people he has never met, and yet clients have purchased his work for thousands of dollars.

Like a Shakespearean drama, Sarkin is a play within a play. A body ravaged by a stroke; a mind that remains astonishingly unfettered. Something happened deep inside Sarkin’s brain when he nearly died in a Pittsburgh hospital 14 years ago. Wires crossed, neurons fired — no one can really explain how, exactly, it happened, just that when it did and he finally woke up, his primary impulse was to draw.

Why do you do art? he is asked.

“Art is to be. To not to be is not a good choice. I feel like mortally recoiling.”

The words are funny, playful, but aside from the two bardic references, they appear to be non sequiturs. Deconstruct the three sentences, however, and Sarkin’s meaning rises like warm bread: Art is everything to this man. It offered him a second life, and he embraced it.

Some of the fruits of that new life will be on display (as well as for sale) this weekend at the Diane von Furstenberg Studio in lower Manhattan where Sarkin is having his first New York City gallery show. Sarkin’s art has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has been displayed in galleries in the Boston area.

The dozen works featured in the New York City show are more than art — they are a link between Sarkin’s two lives.

The first one began in Hillside, N.J., 50 years ago. Sarkin attended the Pingry School, the University of Pennsylvania and then Rutgers graduate school where he received his Masters in Environmental Science. Having once considered medicine a possible career, Sarkin eventually decided to become a chiropractor, studying at the University of Iowa for his doctorate degree. Everything seemed laid out for him. He married, had a son and set up practice near his home on Boston’s North Shore.

The second life began on the 8th green of the Cape Ann Public Golf Course in Essex, on Oct. 20, 1988. The tall, slender chiropractor was putting out, his friend Hank Turgeon looking on. As he reached down to take his ball out of the cup, Sarkin felt something pop in his left ear. It wasn’t so much a sound, as a sense, an odd feeling of sudden dislocation that haunted him for a week — until he woke up one morning with something much worse. It was a high-pitched ringing, like a knife being driven through the side of his skull, and it was unrelenting.

Neither he nor his wife, Kim, could figure out what had happened. Nor could the doctors they consulted over the next few months when the tinnitus (the catch-all diagnosis for “ringing” in the ears), drove Sarkin nearly to the brink of suicide.

Ten months passed. Finally, Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Peter Jannetta discovered a tiny, swollen blood vessel rubbing up against the acoustic nerve in Sarkin’s left ear. All the patient wanted to know was could Jannetta fix it? Yes, but it would take a delicate operation.

On Aug. 7, 1989, Jannetta drilled a hole in Sarkin’s skull and placed a kind of soundproofing device, a razor-thin Teflon wedge, between the offending blood vessel and the acoustic nerve. Everything went smoothly. A day later, however, all hell broke loose.

After briefly awakening, Sarkin precipitously declined. A blood vessel had leaked into his brain causing a stroke, then respiratory failure. During emergency surgery doctors removed the vessel and a good chunk of Sarkin’s brain. Over the next few days and weeks there was more surgery for a bleeding ulcer, a succession of staph infections, a heart attack and pneumonia.

Six weeks later, Sarkin re-entered the world having to re-learn the most basic human functions: breathing, chewing, swallowing. Sitting, walking and talking would take much longer. There would be no way, however, to recover the person that he was before the operation. The ambitious, button-down professional had disappeared and in its place was a man who seemed bewildered, uninhibited and easily distracted.

“These physical/mental ‘stroke manifestations’ are ‘untidy,’ in the same way that death is untidy,” says Sarkin in one of his e-mails. “Bottles of shampoo are left half-used. Tubes of toothpaste are unfinished. Bills remain unpaid, magazines unread, food spoils, the rug you meant to vacuum stays dirty. Let’s face it: The loss of robust physicality and mentality is an inexorable process of aging, only I experienced it at 36, whereas most experience it in the third act of their lives. Resultantly, I’ve had the opportunity (curseblesssing) to come to terms with it over the past 14 years.”

So has his family, including his wife, Kim and his mother, Elaine Zheutlin.

“Jon was extremely smart as a child. He excelled in school; very high-spirited,” says Zheutlin. “(After the stroke) he got to be very philosophical, very attentive to the family. Of course, he’s changed in appearance. But his mind is still excellent.”

His brain however, had suffered damage from being deprived of oxygen and while the physical handicaps were myriad, the mental changes also were marked. In place of the organized, disciplined workaholic, there emerged a man with very little self control. He jumped from one thought to another and one activity to another. Being on time was replaced with indulging a momentary whim.

A casual doodler in his previous life, Sarkin now felt an urgent, almost primal need to create. When he tried to go back to his former life as a chiropractor, instead of wanting to treat patients, he just wanted to draw. And he did. All the time. Before and after seeing patients; sometimes instead of. That obsessiveness carried over into the subject matter. Over and over he would draw the Chrysler building in New York City; cacti; and 1959 Cadillac fins.

It didn’t take long for Sarkin to realize he couldn’t continue being a chiropractor. He wanted, needed, to be an artist, to draw — anything and everything, and with whatever he could get his hands on.

His studio in Rockport, Mass., is a catastrophe of color. There is paint everywhere, and writing (literally) on the windows and walls: “We must not cease to explore and the road of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and know that place for the first time. T.S. Eliot”

The artwork — hundreds of drawings — are heaped in a haphazard, 3-foot-high pile in a back corner. Nearby, Sarkin sits in a paint-splattered yellow sofa chair. Every now and then he reaches out to the pile and cherry picks a piece off the top and starts adding something new to it. Often he will send these pieces, which he calls “boltflashes,” to friends and acquaintances, slapping stamps onto a piece of paper or cardboard or canvas that might still be wet, and then sending it out into the world.

The art is whimsical, a collage of words, cartoon-like faces (with their mouths open and their teeth showing), ink stamps and magazine cut-outs.

On a scrap of cardboard from a Pampers diapers box, he has written in red ink: “Entropy and chaos are simply order and coherence in disguise.” On another piece, “Go Own an Oldsmobile” And on yet another, repetitions of the phrase: “Warhol’s Ghost left for the coast, with Rauschenberg and Jasper John and me.”

“Jon’s art is unique, highly symbolic, full of energy and different emotions,” says Suzanne Segalas, Sarkin’s art agent. “Jon really wants to engage the viewer, to speak to him, to challenge him on a visual and emotional level.”

Sometimes the art will include words that morph into others, such as, “splash,” which becomes “syphilis blues,” which becomes “systemic turmoils,” or strange juxtapositions of words, such as “Samurai concatenation,” or simply plays on words, “The Prints of Whales.”

It’s as if , for Sarkin, art is an experiment in living, an attempt to interpret — or reinterpret — the most basic sounds and images of the world. As if, in some way, the stroke victim was still in a process of recovery, grappling with reality and playfully trying to make sense of it all. Not through the past, but through the moment, the here and now. If he is anything, Sarkin is a man anchored to the present.

“I was thinking today that life should be about the experiencing of one’s life, not the meaning,” says Sarkin. “Bob Dylan once made a documentary “Don’t Look Back.” I don’t. It’s a completely moot point. That question (about looking back) doesn’t compute for me.”

Nor does looking forward, which is why, he says, the idea of death is something he does not dread: “I find it no more strange to think about dying than to think about what you’re going to wear in the morning. The closer your grip on the present, the better. Approaching the reality of life is not for the meek.”

After an article about Sarkin appeared in GQ magazine in 1997, Tom Cruise optioned his story for a possible film. Last month, Paramount, which includes Cruise’s own production company, bought the rights to Sarkin’s life story outright.

Sarkin does not like to talk about the man he used to be. That his wife has stayed with him through everything (she did not want to be interviewed for this article), he considers a minor miracle.

Nor can medical science tell him how a stroke and a lack of oxygen to his brain resulted in this passion and creative talent.

Todd Feinberg, a neurologist at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and the author of “Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self,” has met Sarkin and studied his brain scans.

“What happened to him is kind of a mystery, a clinical mystery,” says Feinberg. “Although his scans only showed that the cerebellum was removed, they didn’t reveal that there was cortical damage, you know, damage to the portions of the brain that would really reveal why he had such a dramatic alteration in his personality. Because he was no longer himself. He literally was a different person.”

That person is still a work in progress. Sarkin’s need to create, and the obsessive quality of his creations, are testimony to that, to his never-resting mind, which continues to shape and re-shape the world around him. The imperfect, said the poet Wallace Stevens, is “hot in us.” But it is also “our paradise.”

Jon Sarkin would seem to agree:

“We work in the dark, we do what we can. Our doubt is our passion.”

NOTE: Jon Sarkin’s art (along with that of Hamilton South) can be seen at the Diane von Furstenberg Studio, 389 West 12th Street, New York, today from 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., Saturday, from 11-6 and Sunday, 12-5.

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