‘A coma knocks everything out. It’s amazing how blank the brain goes,” says John Sears, an artist and teacher who survived a near fatal accident and three-week coma in 1985. Some of Sears’ recent work will be featured in the annual ArtFirst! exhibit at the University Medical Center at Princeton, Sunday, April 9, through Friday, May 5. ArtFirst! is an international juried exhibit and sale featuring artworks by professional artists with physical and mental disabilities. The work of close to 100 artists will be showcased throughout the main floor corridors and meeting rooms of the University Medical Center.

John Sears was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1938, one of four children. His father, Harry, worked in the automobile industry, for Studebaker, Fisk Tire, and Standard Oil, and even ran his own gas station for awhile. According to Sears, and his wife, Anne, director of external affairs at Westminster Choir College, Harry was a handy man, always tinkering on cars, fixing bicycles, or woodworking. “He liked to play, says Sears, “that’s what artists like to do, and that’s where I think I got my background.”

At the age of 10, Sears held his first one-man show in his father’s garage, and the admission he charged was buttons, which his mother, Ruth, collected in a can. His mother was very supportive of his art and his art education, taking a job as a doctor’s receptionist to help pay for art lessons during Sears’ junior high and senior high school years.

After graduating from South Bend Central High School in 1956, Sears received a one-year scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). He studied painting, drawing, and printmaking, receiving a diploma in Fine Arts in 1960. He then continued his studies to earn a bachelors degree in art education in 1965 from AIC, and then a masters in art education from Northern Illinois University in 1970. All the while, he worked part-time and summers for a day school in northern Chicago, teaching severely emotionally disturbed children.

“I really enjoyed that,” says Sears. “The school considered me to be pretty talented, I guess, because they kept me on many years.” Sears even taught himself to ride horses, so that he could teach horseback riding at the school’s summer camp in Michigan.

After completing his masters degree, his talents as a teacher and artist were recognized by the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where he was given a position teaching painting and drawing, and he was also in charge of the school art gallery. Sears truly enjoyed his time at the George School. “I taught there for 15 years. I was planning on being there for 25, but I had this accident.”

On May 17, 1985, Sears was struck head-on by a car while riding his bicycle. He suffered traumatic brain injuries and multiple fractures. He was in a coma for three weeks, and doctors were not sure whether or not he would survive. Anne says the doctor told her, “One thing’s for sure, he will never be the same again.” When Sears awoke from his coma, he was in the ICU for six weeks and then moved into rehab. “He couldn’t lift his head up, he couldn’t walk or talk,” says Anne. “He had to relearn everything.”

As a result of his brain injuries, Sears suffers partial paralysis, double vision (which is minimized by special glasses), and cognitive impairments. He was in rehab for four and a half months, during which time, according to Anne, “they were just worried about him doing the basic things in life, let alone drawing,” but one year later, Sears wanted to try to make art again.

He attended a life drawing class of a close friend, Jacques Fabert, and produced a very good pencil drawing of two female nudes. The drawing exhibits varying line and shading qualities from soft to hard and the proportions, though slightly exaggerated, are quite good. It is truly an amazing feat, for a first attempt after such an injury.

Sears may say that a coma makes the mind go blank, but obviously he retained his artistic talent. The drawing currently hangs in his home along with many other pieces of artwork produced both before and after the accident. I was surprised when walking through the house, talking to Sears, how difficult it was to determine which pieces were pre- and which were post-accident. Sears remains artistically active to this day, mostly working from photographs; he takes a camera with him wherever he goes. He even gets around by himself on a three-wheeled bicycle.

And though it took awhile, John has been able to go back into teaching. Says Anne: “John is a born teacher, it’s amazing. He gets letters from past students saying, ‘You changed my life.’” Sears began to volunteer at the rehabilitation center where he had spent so much time, and at St. Mary’s Hospital, working with other brain injury patients. He had great success, “He could get people to do things who would otherwise sit there like lumps, who wouldn’t try anything,” Anne says. He then branched out to work with senior citizens at Langhorne Gardens and also with brain injury residents at Beechwood, continuing to be an inspiration to his students.

As for how the accident changed his view of life and art, perhaps his artist’s statement, which accompanies Sears’ entry in the ArtFirst! competition, reveals the answer: “Making art has been a central part of my life since I was a child. After my accident, when the doctors told me that I might not be able to make art again, I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine living without being able to create. Using as much will and determination as I could muster, I kept on trying, so that today I can once again work in my studio. The improvement I continue to make in my art shows me how much progress I’m making with the rest of my recovery.”

ArtFirst!, patrons preview party (open to the public, tickets $65 to $200), Saturday, April 8, 6 to 9 p.m., University Medical Center at Princeton, 253 Witherspoon Street, 609-497-4211. On view to the general public Sunday, April 9, through Friday, May 5.

All art is for sale by the artists with prices ranging from under $100 to $4,000. Art includes handcrafted baskets, watercolors, oils, acrylics, mixed media, sculpture, photography, pottery, mosaic, and jewelry.

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