I know this table! I’m pretty sure I saw this in his studio when I visited John Sears several years ago. The late Mr. Sears’ illustration will be on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum‘s Bucks County and the Philadelphia Sketch Club beginning Aug. 21.
Here’s what the museum’s website says about the exhibit:
“The Philadelphia Sketch Club is America’s oldest continuously operating club for professional artists. The Sketch Club began operations in 1860, founded by six former students of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who wanted to improve their skills as illustrators. Over the years club members have been influential in the development of American art, both regionally and nationally. Members have included such luminaries as Thomas Eakins, Thomas Anshutz, and N.C. Wyeth, as well as the renowned Bucks County painters Edward W. Redfield, Daniel Garber, and Walter Baum. The Sketch Club’s 150th Anniversary in 2010 will be celebrated by a year-long series of exhibitions, programs, and events at Philadelphia-area institutions. The Michener Art Museum is organizing an exhibition of drawings and other works on paper by some of the best-known Bucks County members of the club, both historic and contemporary.”
Mr. Sears lived in Yardley, Pa., with his wife, Anne. Here’s what I wrote about him several years ago, when his work was featured in Art First! at the University Medical Center at Princeton:
The Yardley, Pa., home where the Sears live is situated alongside the Delaware Canal. Surrounded by stonework and mature landscaping, it is a peaceful retreat. The interior is fastidiously appointed; an orchid in bloom gracefully arcs across a picture window with a view of the canal. There is order here.
An early 1980s photo in the studio, where Mr. Sears works while listening to jazz, shows the attractive young couple in a sailboat a few weeks after their wedding. On another wall is a painting, a large, pre-accident self-portrait of a tall, dark bushy haired man with a mustache.
The home is filled with Mr. Sears’ artwork that the couple separates into before and after categories. There are differences between the two, but no artist worth his salt would not change over 20 years. Mr. Sears’ paintings continue to do well in shows and win awards.
In 1985, Mr. Sears was riding his bicycle to George School in Newtown, Pa., where he had worked as an art teacher for 17 years. He was cited by the Rhode Island Institute for Design as one of the nation’s outstanding art educators. He and Anne, married three years – it was a second marriage for both of them – lived in a townhouse on the George School campus. Mr. Sears has enjoyed cycling since his boyhood in South Bend, Ind. As a form of transportation, “It would get my energy up so I could talk better to my students.”
He had to ride through the woods and past St. Mary’s Hospital, and that’s where he was hit by the car that nearly killed him. “I was lucky to be so close to a hospital,” he says good-naturedly.
The hospital had a brand-new head trauma unit, and Mr. Sears was one of its first patients, according to his wife. He spent six weeks in intensive care. Ms. Sears pulls out a sample of the very first artwork Mr. Sears produced after the accident. The doctors had handed him a manila envelope and asked him to draw on the back of it. There are meandering pencil scrawls and in the center, letters spell out “HELP.”
After intensive care, he spent six months in inpatient rehabilitation. “People with head injuries get out of bed and fall, and the last thing you want to do when you have a head injury is fall,” says Ms. Sears, who works as director, external affairs for Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton. A room was set up with the mattress on the floor, surrounded by gym mats.
In November of that year he was released and spent two years in outpatient rehab. “John is a walking example of what someone who has had good therapy can become,” says Ms. Sears. “The insurance was more than willing to invest in intensive long-term therapy.”
“I’m not the same John Sears,” says the artist. “I’ve completely changed. My speech is different. I walk, sleep, eat and talk differently.”
His disabilities include partial paralysis – he walks with a limp – speech disorders, depression, memory problems, and double vision. He tires easily. The depression is biologically caused, says Ms. Sears.
For a time after the accident, he was too depressed to get back to his artwork. He would sit in his studio for hours and cry, recounts Ms. Sears, who serves on the board of trustees of the Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania. “People with brain injuries have difficulty initiating tasks.”
After resisting medication, he finally began a course of antidepressants, which enables him to tackle his work. “Sometimes I can’t remember, and I’m so afraid I won’t remember what I’m painting,” he says. “But when I do it, it comes out just fine and I win prizes and it sells.”
In 1987, two years after the accident, he had a show at George School and it sold out. That first work, all in black and white, was dark and gloomy, Ms. Sears remembers. Mr. Sears was so depressed he walked to the SEPTA bridge over the canal and thought about jumping in. “But then I got hungry so I came home,” he says with a twinkle.
Before the accident, Mr. Sears appears to have been in love with the sky. The living room is filled with a series of skyscapes. He had a friend from Princeton with a ketch, and the pair would go to Bermuda and sail back to New Jersey. After returning home, Mr. Sears created a series of pastel images that capture visions of life at sea: a corner of the ketch and the rigging, a sunrise hidden behind the clouds reflected on the Atlantic Ocean, a hole in the sail as it blows in the wind.
One of Ms. Sears’ favorites – one she wouldn’t sell at any price – is a larger-than-life painting on cotton canvas of the inside of a refrigerator. A gallon of cider, wine, a jar of jam, bowls and containers – Mr. Sears glorifies these icons of the home kitchen.
Where does he get his ideas? “They just come out of the air,” says Mr. Sears, excitedly. “I find them wherever I travel.”
Last summer the couple spent three weeks in a Tuscan farmhouse, and the summer before they traveled to Spain. When they returned, Mr. Sears created paintings completely from memory. One painting, framed by Moorish ornate ironwork on the Casa de Pilatos in Seville, has a view of Ms. Sears from behind, Mr. Sears facing the viewer, and his brother and sister-in-law off to the side. The subject is like that of a travel photo, only intricately rendered on canvas. “I like seeing the ironwork. You see it, and then you don’t,” says Mr. Sears.
Fairly recently, Mr. Sears has begun wearing prismatic lenses to correct his double vision. “We found a neuro-optometrist at the Philadelphia Eye Institute who understood how important vision is to an artist and could help,” says Ms. Sears.
Mr. Sears spends a good amount of time in the car, being driven by his wife. He has filled sketchbook after sketchbook with intricate pen-and-ink drawings of Ms. Sears’ head looking out through the windshield, against the steering wheel, with detailed reflections in the side mirror and the rear-view mirror. The style of these drawings, and the passion with which they are pursued, put them among his best work, and in some ways they have more depth than his pre-accident art. His corrected double vision appears to have given him the ability to see perspective with new dimensions. “You see two different ways at once, forward and back,” he says.
His early work was more exacting and precise, Ms. Sears points out, and some people actually prefer his looser style now. “It has more freedom,” she says.
Although Mr. Sears’ disability does not allow him to hold a full-time job, he has three part-time volunteer jobs teaching art to students with disabilities: at the Beechwood Rehabilitation Center in Langhorne a residential facility for people with brain injury; in the rehabilitation unit at St. Mary’s (“I owe them for saving my life,” says Mr. Sears); and at Langhorne Gardens, a rehabilitation center.
“I’m helping them find themselves,” says Mr. Sears. “They don’t think they can make art but they can. They come alive in my class.”
People are lining up to drive Mr. Sears to his volunteer jobs. “John had been isolated, and that led to depression,” says Ms. Sears. “So we joined Washington Crossing Unitarian Church about five years ago. We are so lucky to have a network of friends.”
His sketchbooks are like diaries: There are scenes from a concert at Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College; one of his students making color circles (“Just to make circles is something, and then color it in – it’s art, you’d better believe it,” says Mr. Sears); and abstracted links from a bicycle chain. “You can’t go wrong painting bicycle chains,” he says.
Bicycles are a recurring theme in his work. The couple has invested in a recumbent bike “and it’s worth every penny,” says Ms. Sears. He wheels the vehicle to the towpath in his backyard, then cycles into downtown Yardley, where he may get a haircut or fill his basket with purchases. Attached to the helmet is a rearview mirror, which has inspired more sketches.
In addition to cycling, Mr. Sears sails again. The couple has a small catboat they take into the Bohemia River near their second home in Maryland.
While it may seem like a miraculous recovery, there are still dark days. “John has tremendous spirit and motivation even on days he is pulled down by depression,” says Ms. Sears. “He fights his way out of the darkest corners. He’s like a toy clown with a weight that always springs back up no matter how many times it’s knocked down.”
“If my students can be successful, why can’t I?” he says.