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Newburyport artist won’t let stroke stop him

Ron Emmerling, in his Newburyport home, works on one of his paintings.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Ron Emmerling, in his Newburyport home, works on one of his paintings.

NEWBURYPORT — Ron Emmerling certainly looks like an artist, with his shock of white hair, his geometric eyeglasses, his black clothes. His paintings, on exhibit this weekend at his airy downtown loft, are bright and deceptively simple, what the art world calls “naive.”

His story, though, is dramatic and anything but simple or easy.

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Emmerling, 77, was a successful consumer product designer for many years, with his own company and a catalog of glossy pictures to show off his designs for products such as cameras and stereo speakers. He did not make them work, he made them look good: shaping their curves, choosing their colors.

Emmerling also traveled widely and made his own art, including photographs shot around the world and highly geometric abstract collages often made of colored paper. There also were sculptures in various media that showed his designer’s eye at work. After he sold his company and retired in the early 2000s, he devoted even more time to his art.

Then, in July 2010, Emmerling was on his power boat off the coast of New Jersey — where he lived and worked — when he suddenly felt ill, especially on his right side.

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“I remember saying, ‘Oh, just go home, I’m OK,’ ” he said.

He asked his passengers for a drink of water, then poured the water over his shoulder instead of into his mouth. They rushed him to shore and the hospital.

‘This has helped a lot, because I have a lot of time on my hands and I don’t watch TV,’

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It was a stroke, a bad one. Now he spends his days in a wheelchair. He was righthanded, but his right side is all but useless. He cannot drink or eat or perform many other ordinary functions, much less use a camera or cut colored paper for collages. But his mind is sharp, and with the encouragement of Karla, his wife of 52 years, he is making art again, painting in acrylic with his left hand.

“I never painted before, ever,” Emmerling said matter-of-factly. “She said, ‘Try it.’ ”

With the support of local artists Paula Estey and Zsuzsanna Donnell, the couple have decided to have a pop-up gallery this weekend in their Newburyport home at 7 Prince Place. Roughly 200 pieces of his artwork from both before and after the stroke will be on display and many of them on sale.

“Ron Emmerling Reinvented” opens with a reception on Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. and is also open Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. (It will be open by appointment on Sunday.) Prices range from $150 to $4,500 for some sculptures.

Painting has eased Emmerling through difficult times as he adjusts to his new life, he said.

“This has helped a lot, because I have a lot of time on my hands, and I don’t watch TV, and my eyes are not so great right now for reading,” he said, speaking with slight difficulty on a recent afternoon in his sunny living room.

As he spoke, artwork waiting to be hung leaned everywhere against the walls and furniture.

Although he has sold his photography in galleries a few times, this is his biggest show. Friends are coming from all over the country for the event, and the Emmerlings hope the local art community will turn out as well.

Emmerling’s first painting was a zesty portrait of a woman in a red hat. Next came the roofline of the Newburyport Public Library, level with his windows across the street.

“I painted that one of the woman in the red hat, and people came over and they saw it and they said ‘Ohhhh,’ he recalled. “So I said, ‘I’ll try another one.’ And over the last six months I’ve been cranking them out.”

Subjects range from white houses creeping up a hillside on the Spanish coast — painted from his photograph of the scene — to nearly abstract images from nature.

“He’s got more than 30 paintings now,” said Estey. “He goes from this black-and-white sort of guy and spare sculpting to all of a sudden these paintings, and they’re a little bit carnival, the colors he’s using.”

“I never worked in color [like this] before,” Emmerling said with a shrug. “I guess maybe it’s because the medium, which is acrylic, affords the opportunity to really explore color.”

Both he and his wife say the effort and concentration have helped him improve his motor skills and general well-being.

“I would say there’s been dramatic improvement,” Karla Emmerling said. “Three months or six months after his stroke, he couldn’t write a letter that was legible. He had a lot of jerking movements and now he’s much more steady.

“I think you can even see it in the paintings. Look at the control of the waves in the sunset one. I am really astonished,” she said. “He used to sleep in the afternoons, and now he’s in there four or five hours, painting.”

After his initial hospitalization — including almost a month in the intensive care unit — Emmerling, who is originally from the New York City area, and his wife eventually sold their homes in New Jersey and moved to Newburyport to be closer to their children and grandchildren, who live in Newburyport and in Andover.

They bought the big penthouse space at the top of an old factory building on Prince Place, behind the site of the now-closed Taffy’s Restaurant. The roof deck offers views over the downtown all the way to the ocean.

The walls are white, the place mostly pristine. Emmerling said he works in acrylic because it is easy to work with, and clean up.

“I make a mess,” he said with a laugh. “I do everything with my left hand and I drop my brush on the floor everywhere. If it was oil, it would be a nightmare.”

“He may progress to oils,” Karla Emmerling said, smiling, “but then we may have to get a studio.”

For more information on the exhibit, call Paula Estey at 978-376-4746. Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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