You could say that the journey of the luscious fishes adorning the Fish City Rug Collection began in the stroke-altered brain of Jon Sarkin C’75. And from that fertile spawning ground, they weaved through his bloodstream to his brush-wielding fingers, breaching onto a large canvas at his Gloucester, Massachusetts, studio. There a camera caught them in a digital net and coded them so they could swim through the internet ether—all the way to Kathmandu, where artisanal weavers gave them materiality on their landlocked looms. After four months, during which their knots were carefully manipulated and saturated with colors, they were reborn as rug-fish—and sent flying back to Boston. Now these singularly textured trophy fish are on the market.
There are other ways to tell this story, of course. But this is Sarkin we’re talking about.
“This is just another thing that drives the Boy, did I go in a different direction motif home,” Sarkin says.
That motif has been driven home a lot over the past couple of decades, in the Gazette [ “Artist Unleashed,” May 1997] and elsewhere. The short, prose version goes like this: After suffering a brain-altering stroke in 1989, Sarkin found that his internal filters were pretty much gone—and that all he wanted to do was paint and draw and otherwise create stuff. (Until then he had worked as a chiropractor.) That stuff might be cactuses; it might be Cadillacs; it might be talking taxi doors. Or it might be alien-looking cartoon characters with pointed ears and trippy eyes quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and twisting its lines into a commercial pitch—like the note he wrote on cardboard and sent me shortly after our phone conversation. ( Do you suffer from shape without form? Shade without color? Paralyzed force? Gesture without motion? Then join the millions that’ve crossed with direct eyes to death’s other kingdom. For ten easy payments of $39.95, you too can remember, just like the stars, the hollow men. )
Or it might be fish.
“I like drawing fish,” Sarkin says.
The Fish City Rug Collection is a cooperative venture between Sarkin and the Boston-based Landry & Arcari rug merchants and the weavers they employ in Nepal. After seeing some of Sarkin’s paintings, owner Jeff Arcari wanted to collaborate on a rug design. The fish are just the beginning.
“They basically wanted to start a whole line of rugs designed by me,” says Sarkin. “So this is not a one-off deal. They’ve already bought one design, and I’ve signed a contract for them to purchase six more. If this is marketable, that’s going to get their attention.”
The fact that they’ve taken his design and turned it into a rug is “unbelievably validating, acknowledging, and flattering,” he says, likening the process to an obscure book that gets turned into a Hollywood movie.
But his excitement is more about the final product than the concept itself.
“The weavers in Nepal never saw a design as complex as this. This is not like a rug that you do on a computer. It’s done on a huge loom, and there are little imperfections in it—times where they made the knots tighter than other times. And it’s a such a fine work of art! They were just blown away by how cool it looked when they were done.
“I think America has lost the aesthetic of things being hand-done, and being done closely and painstakingly,” he adds. “We want everything done with a computer. My art is the total opposite of that. The higher-tech things go, the lower-tech I want to go.”
Which brings us back to the unlikely arc of Sarkin’s work—and life.
“I get the Gazette,” he says, “and I see what’s going on with people in my class—they’re doing this, doing that. I think that the path I’ve followed in my narrative is a lot more, more—what adjective would you use?”
I mull for a moment, then toss out the word singular.
“Yeah! That’s a really good word!” he says. “It’s a lot more singular. And in my opinion, that’s about the highest praise a person can get. You know? Corporate lawyers are a dime a dozen—you put on that nice suit, and you make a lot of money, and you join the country club, and you live in a nice house, and you have all this money in a retirement account. That’s not singular. But what I’m doing is.
“I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Sarkin adds quickly. “But I’ll tell you, it’s a thing.”—S.H.