THERE IS A RADIANCE to Jess Yurwitz. A comfort and a positivity that, when you have been warmed by it, stays with you.
She is an artist and a teacher with over 30 years of experience in alternative schools. But when we met five years ago, and began walking our dogs together, she had just left her position as a high school principal and was looking for something new. She wanted to create a space where adults could come together, open up, and push past the things that hold them back; the things that hold us all back. A place to create, try, laugh, and just be. (And, of course, share her warmth and everlasting radiance.) She did. In 2019 Slow River Studios adult art school opened in a lovely studio space on Eastern Avenue in Essex, just across the way from Greenbelt’s Cox Reservation where Sharon Pacione worked — and saw a possibility.
Jeff Pacione is also an artist. He studied design at Carnegie Mellon and taught graphic design at RISD, painting in his free time. He was good at both—design and painting. He met Sharon and the two moved about domestically and internationally, got married, had three children, and together helped Jeff found a design firm in Boston. Life was busy and wonderful, growing the business and raising three kids.
But in the summer of 2008, things changed. Just 10 days before he was set to leave for college at Dartmouth, their oldest son Gabe, a two-time state champion cross country runner, was killed in a car accident. Though years passed, the unimaginable loss remained ever-present and keeping the business going became difficult, adding to their stress. In 2015 Sharon came home from work to find Jeff waiting for her on the porch, uncharacteristically. He told her he felt odd and had a tingling in his shoulders. Sharon assured him it was likely nothing, but suggested they head to the emergency room just in case.
Inwardly she knew something was wrong. Upon examination, it was determined that Jeff would undergo a triple bypass the following morning. He did. And while everything went well, he did not wake up.
Jeff had had a stroke during surgery. He could not speak and the entire right side of his body was paralyzed. After two days he could make sounds, but not form words. As a result of the stroke, Jeff had developed aphasia, a condition where permanent brain damage results in the loss of one’s ability to understand or express speech. Jeff has expressive aphasia, meaning that he can understand what is being said, and knows what he wants to say, but has a very difficult time getting the words to come out.
The stroke was followed by a long and difficult journey of physical and occupational therapy. He has regained most of the use of the right side of his body but he cannot drive. And he can no longer work. But he can walk, he can ride a bike—and he can paint.
When Sharon contacted Jess, she imagined having to talk someone into the idea of signing her husband up for a drawing class, explaining the challenges. What she had not planned on was Jess – who does not see what you can’t do, but what you can. Jess enthusiastically signed Jeff up for a drawing class. Then a painting class. And in very short order, it became apparent to her that Jeff was a better painter than she was (though she swears she is gaining on him). She asked Jeff if he would be willing to work with her. He was. And they have been working together, symbiotically, for the past four years. As it turns out, Jess was forming a new kind of community and Jeff needed a new kind of community to join.
On a walk I asked Jess about Jeff’s aphasia and she explained, in a very Jess way, that for us words are light. They weigh nothing. We can easily gather them together and then effortlessly hand them all off to someone else. But for Jeff, each word is like a rock. It is heavy and very difficult to lift up and hand off to someone else. It takes effort -- and is exhausting. So Jess and Jeff use a language all their own. Jess explains, “Our long, curious conversations are spoken in a different medium from most. We use paintings to speak with each other, to share our joys, frustrations and questions. We speak through brush strokes and cast shadows, site lines and value relationships.” The language of their friendship is art.
I visited Jeff and Jess during one of their outdoor painting classes. The art students were sprinkled amongst the endless rows of flowers growing on Moraine Farm in Beverly. Jeff is slight, sweet, and treads lightly. He quietly approaches a painter and smiles disarmingly. He looks at her work and suggests a slight change. Often using a paintbrush to show a division of space, or a color, he shows her what he sees. His few remarks are succinct, kind and, judging from the response, welcome. There are very few, or sometimes no words at all. He works his way through the students and at some point intersects Jess. They seem incapable of not laughing and smiling when in one another’s company. Looking at how the two have approached the group you can see that each student is left with the infectious joy and inspiration of Jess and the warm guidance of Jeff. They are magic.
At the end of my visit, when everyone had returned to their work on sunflowers, zinnias, and dahlias, I found Jeff not in the field but in the parking lot, painting hay bales. The round ones. And while the flower paintings were good, his was exceptional. The shapes. The colors. They were just —more. They spoke louder. And perhaps there is something to that.
Back at the studio, as we were wrapping up our time together, Jeff did the most remarkable thing. Based on something that Sharon had explained, how when he could access a different part of the brain, an undamaged part, Jeff could speak easily; for example, when he sings songs that he learned as a child. I was stunned as Jeff, who truly does struggle to find each and every word, sang with ease and joy the song Happy Birthday. Easy. Effortless. Just like that. And then I saw it—what Jeff and Jess have found is exactly the same. A different way to share ideas, information, and themselves. A language all their own - using color, shape, and ideas. A language of art, but more so, a language of friendship. They found another way, like the Happy Birthday song—and here, where they meet, the words are light and easy. They can be handed off to a friend. And handed back again. Just like that.
Slow River Studios has grown and now has a space in Topsfield where Jess and Jeff teach adult art classes. They kicked off their grand opening with a show of Jeff’s paintings which can be seen through October 1 at Slow River Studios - 17 Main Street, Topsfield. Open house this weekend, Sunday 8/28 from 2-5 pm.