Theater & art

Art Review

Taking the pulse of ‘art as healing’ at Danforth Art

Detail of “Couple in the Woods” by Jon Imber (above).
Private collection
Detail of “Couple in the Woods” by Jon Imber.

FRAMINGHAM — Every couple of years Danforth Art fills its galleries with exhibitions that connect art with healing. That’s a euphemism, I suppose, for art and sickness.

Or is that unfair?

Critics are trained to be skeptical of the idea that art heals, or that it might somehow be put to therapeutic use. The skepticism may seem perverse, but there’s a reason for it: As soon as you pin a use value on art, even if the use you have in mind is beneficent, you turn it into an instrument for someone’s agenda.


And at that point, art’s capacity to make us see things afresh, to experience unadulterated pleasure, to face truths otherwise obscured by cant and cliché (including the cliché that art is good for you) is seriously compromised.

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This is an argument I subscribe to, at least in principle. But I also recognize that it elevates truth and aesthetic pleasure above the plight of individual people. Truth is good, so is pleasure. But what about the other truth, which is that, through the ages, both making art and looking at it have helped to alleviate suffering, often simply by communicating it — by expressing the otherwise inexpressible?

This week alone, after visiting seven linked shows on the theme of “art and healing” at the Danforth, I was made aware of two shows of art by young males with autism. One of them is Billy Megargel, a 24-year-old who is a patient at the Lurie Center for Autism at Mass. General. Megargel, I read, has barely spoken a word his entire life. He communicates instead through his computer, and through his artwork. He has several works hanging in the hospital’s Center for Perioperative Care and a solo show at the Lurie Center.

The other is Nick Morse, also 24, who has been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Morse has only been painting for a few years, but every year or so he has a solo show — always explosively colored — in the Boston area. The latest is at the Cambridge Arts Council’s Open Studios (noon through 6 p.m. Sunday).

Who would doubt the value of these efforts, or, knowing their significance, fail to be moved by the works themselves?


Danforth Art, meanwhile, not only mounts exhibitions related to healing, but also accepts referrals from Framingham’s MetroWest Medical Center. Referred patients receive art classes at the Danforth School, says director Katherine French. They and visitors from Framingham’s Callahan Senior Center, among other service agencies, are also given special tours of the museum. All this is more than commendable.

Meanwhile, it’s important to know that the actual shows under the umbrella title “Art and Healing” are by people who, regardless of their relationship to illness, are first and foremost artists. In most cases, the shows are not so much the product of illness as a means by which to express a relationship to it. In many cases, the relationship could be defined as “before the illness” and “after it.”

Of the seven, the two most compelling are by men who have nothing whatsoever in common except that they are both, like all of us, mortal.

Collection Danforth Art.
Detail of Jon Imber’s “Portrait of Philip Guston in a Green Coat.”

The first, Jon Imber, has been known for years as one of Boston’s most accomplished artists. Imber has painting in his veins, and, behind him, a body of work that is not just technically sure-footed but exploratory, audacious, and gut-loaded with articulate feeling.

Imber has ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes nerves controlling voluntary muscles to atrophy. His ability to walk, stand, use his hands, and even talk has deteriorated rapidly since his diagnosis almost two years ago. His sense of humor, his sly intelligence, and his obsession with painting remain intact.


The show at Danforth Art (he has also had shows this year at Alpha Gallery and Maud Morgan Art’s Chandler Gallery) is an impressive overview that focuses on his figurative work, rather than on the abstracted, gestural paintings for which he is also well known.

It’s a powerful display, beefed up by loans from local museums, such as the Currier Museum of Art, the Rose Art Museum, and the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

The central gallery contains 11 mostly large-scale paintings. At its heart are three monumental portraits. One is a self-portrait of Imber in his youth. Its thick but fastidiously controlled accretions of paint express a physical robustness that is in sweet tension with the tender, watery-eyed intensity of his gaze. It’s one of several self-portraits in the show.

The second is a portrait of the painter Philip Guston, a kind of mentor and father-figure to Imber, and the third is a portrait of his actual father.

The size of the paintings in this gallery and the manner of their painting suggest heavy themes — patrimony, solitude, coupling. But Imber has a genius for marrying big feelings to humor and self-effacement. There’s an amplitude to these pictures that, if it seems stirringly straightforward, is also surprisingly subtle.

“Couple in the Woods” suggests a memorable meeting of Cezanne and Picasso (in his pneumatic, neo-classical phase). “Embrace III” and “Carry” show a naked man and woman in each other’s grip. Their solidity, and Imber’s uncanny sensitivity to the relationship between bodily volume and his pictures’ edges, make them brilliant conduits to strange feelings: The click of a perfect fit meets the wriggle of incipient claustrophobia.

The neighboring gallery contains two more big pictures with biblical themes, and nine landscapes, some with figures.

Finally, there are 25 portraits that Imber has painted since his diagnosis.

One way — perhaps the least interesting way — to look at them is to use them to try to chart Imber’s physical decline. Another way is simply to let your eyes revel in their specificity.

Each portrait communicates a bravura insight into the look and carriage of the sitter. But each is also the record of an encounter — a struggle, involving palpable delight but also fear, strain, focus, and a frankly heroic marshaling of creative energies.

The Danforth’s other great show is a selection of 10 small-scale pictures, all made in the 1990s with colored marker, ink, and pencil, by Stuart Williams.

Williams, the subject of a forthcoming book by the poet and critic William Corbett, died in 2012, in his early 60s. He had a rare genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, which is associated with various cognitive and physical symptoms, including insatiable appetite and poor muscle control.

The seventh child of two sculptors, he was born in Peterborough, N.H., and learned to draw, according to the show’s curator, Adrienne Jacobson, “by observing his parents and attending classes at the Sharron Art Center,” not far from his home.

Estate of Stuart H. Williams
“Unti-tled (It hot warm day here in Nelson N.H. on Center Pond)” by Stuart Williams.

His drawings are riveting. They are clearly articulated but densely packed images of subjects drawn either directly from nature or from a rich imaginative compost deeply informed by nature. Animals are almost always integrated into his pictures, if only as a pair of eyes obscured by a scrim of flowers, trees, or waves.

Williams spent a great deal of time out of doors — on a farm, and while traveling abroad. He also studied animals in books, and each of his drawings suggests an enviably deep, somehow magical identification with them.

This sense is reinforced by texts Williams wrote, often from the point of view of animals, either on the back of the works themselves or on a separate sheet of paper. For instance: “IT IS MIDNIGHT AND IT IS SNOWING HARD AND STAR ARE OUT AND SHINING. I AM VERY HUNGRY HUNGRY I HAVE NOT EATEN FOR TWO DAYS. I PERCH IN STOP OF THE OAK TREE.”


This two-legged critic was enormously moved by Williams’s works. Along with Jon Imber’s paintings and the other five affiliated displays at Danforth, they can be seen as tributes to the persistence of human imagination in the face of — and often in response to — very tough circumstances.

But they are also reminders that art, at its best, is fed and sustained by impulses which are nothing if not anarchic. Try yoking art to good intentions all you like. It will always break free.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at