C. David Thomas
I was born in Portland, Maine, on July 15, 1946, to Charles and Betty Thomas, the middle child of their three children. From 1964 until 1968, I attended the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art & Design). In June of 1968, I graduated from PSA, married my wife Jean, and enlisted in the U.S. Army to avoid what seemed like the inevitable draft. From April 11, 1969, until March 22, 1970, I was stationed in Pleiku, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. My job was to drive a jeep and draw blueprints. I also drew and photographed many of the children who surrounded my jeep whenever I stopped.
Right: Specialist 5 David Thomas sitting in his hooch on Engineer Hill in Pleiku, South Vietnam in 1969
Below and right: Some of the dozens of Vietnamese children who surrounded my Jeep whenever I stopped.
When I returned from my year in Pleiku, I wanted to express my feelings about that year before they faded into the background. My tour in Vietnam had changed my life. I was compelled to find a way to express the
asymmetry of the effects of the war on the U.S. and on Vietnam. We mourn our 58,000+ American soldiers killed in Vietnam while they mourn the more than two million civilians killed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As a result of chemicals sprayed and high tonnage of bombs dropped by U.S. military this number will continue to increase in Vietnam for many decades if not centuries.
These emotions took me to the basement of the house my wife had rented on Long Sands Road in Kittery, Maine. Having left my M-16 rifle in Pleiku, and now rearmed with paper and paint, I made dozens of paintings, mostly of the beautiful Vietnamese children I had befriended and the destruction we had inflicted
on the Vietnamese people and their land. It was not in me to picket and march in protest to the war. Instead, from 1971 until 1975 I completed a series of paintings and prints in protest to the American War in Vietnam. One of these paintings is hanging on the stairway to my studio to remind me every day of the tragedy of the American War in Vietnam.
I became a college art teacher in Boston, where we still live. During the summer of 1987, while on my first sabbatical from Emmanuel College, I returned to Vietnam for the first of what was to become over fifty trips back. It was again largely the Vietnam- ese children who tore at my heart and reappeared in my work. I also became fascinated with Vietnam's great leader Ho Chi Minh and painted over fifty portraits of him and made an artist's book and trade book about his life and country.
At this time, I also began the nonprofit Indochina Arts Partnership to develop and coordinate programs of cultural and educational exchange in an attempt to bring our two countries, who had no diplomatic relations, closer together. For the next thirty years I worked with primarily artists from both countries to organize exhibitions, publish books, make films, and bring groups of American artists, students and others to Vietnam while bringing dozens of Vietnamese artists and art officials to the U.S.
Little did I know when I returned to Vietnam in 1987, that I would spend the rest of my life trying to ease the pain caused by the American War there, to educate Americans here about the real tragedy of our invasion
of Vietnam, and to humanize the people we had dehumanized in order to kill and poison them. I have been invited into the homes of our former enemy many times only to learn how much we have in common, not that which divides us. We have laughed and cried together and shared many beautiful memories and hopes for the future.
Left: 1971 mixed media painting by Thomas of one of the many children who he befriended during the war. Below: David Thomas (kneeling) at an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City during his first return to Vietnam in 1987. Many of the children in this orphanage were fathered by U.S. soldiers.
Left: Flushing the toilet in Vietnam was accomplished with a gallon or so of diesel fuel and a match.
1979 photograph of Thomas taken at the airport in Pleiku, South Vietnam.
One of the dozens of MRI brain scans taken of David Thomas's brain on December 14, 2020.
During the year I spent on Engineer Hill, I never really paid much attention to why nothing grew in this rich volcanic red soil of Vietnam's Central Highlands. I did know my unit was also responsible for killing the vegetation one hundred meters on each side of the roads we were constructing and at all work sites. This was primarily to take away the jungle growth where snipers and enemy soldiers could hide. We were told this would keep us safe.
One day while I was driving from Pleiku to Kontum I stopped to wait while a 2 ½ ton army truck, with a large plastic tank mounted in the back, was spraying the foliage surrounding a Vietnamese village ahead of us. When I asked what the soldier what he was doing he told me that he was indeed spraying the thick foliage with a defoliant to make it safe for us by taking away the hiding spaces for enemy snipers. He wore no protective gear and sprayed some of the defoliant on his finger and licked it off to prove to me that what he was doing was perfectly safe. I remember at that time I wondered how anything that killed vegetation so effectively could be be safe for us.
A couple of years ago I interviewed a Vietnamese family living near Da Nang whose two teenage sons suffer from severe physical and cognitive impairments resulting from their parents' exposure to Agent Orange during the American War. They emotionally recounted having been drenched numerous times by U.S. airplanes spraying the jungle. They saw that this deadly chemical quickly killed everything in its path, even the oldest and biggest trees. After the war ended, they
returned to their homeland and began their
Lithograph with Digital Print
12 x 16 inches
family of four children, the two boys and two perfectly normal girls. The mother had dedicated most of her adult life to taking care of the boys but both parents were now very concerned about what would become of their two sons after they are gone.
Vietnam reports that some 400,000 people have suffered death or permanent injury from exposure to Agent Orange. It is also estimated that 2,000,000 people have suffered from illnesses caused by exposure and that half a million babies were born with birth defects due to the effects of Agent Orange. The U.S. government has consistently stated that no scientific evidence links Agent Orange/dioxin to adverse health effects found in Vietnam. How can this be? The Veterans Administration authorizes U.S. veterans compensation for those who were exposed to Agent Orange for less than a year while the Vietnamese population has been exposed for decades. U.S. officials have begun talks with Vietnamese counterparts about a humanitarian approach to the issue. In addition, Congress has appropriated $40.1 million since 2007 for environmental remediation of dioxin-contaminated sites and for related health activities, on a humanitarian basis.
The earliest memories I have of what may have been my first symptoms of Parkinson's disease were in the early 2000s when I began to have difficulty remembering my students' names and I lost my sense of taste and smell. Over the next fifteen years I have added several more symptoms, like shuffling my feet when walking and not swinging my arms. At first, I attributed this to normal aging; after all, I was then sixty years old. By 2005, I began to feel very confused but found it hard to pin down what was happening to me. I went to webmd.com and put in my list of symptoms. The resulting diagnosis was a 90% chance of my having Parkinson's Disease.
Lithograph with Digital Print
13 x 17 inches
The VA estimates that there are 110,000 veterans currently living with Parkinson's disease.
After testing, I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2015, and placed on the standard medication for Parkinson's patients to reduce some of my symptoms and given a 100% VA disability rating. I read The Brain's Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. on the power of walking five miles every other day. Since then I have walked five miles every day. I hoped that walking twice as often would produce two times the benefit. I have walked approximately 4,730 miles or from Boston to San Francisco and half the way back. In
addition to working in my studio every day I have also done physical therapy, yoga and tai chi, I believe that this routine has slowed the advance of my Parkinson's.
My symptoms have continued to slowly but steadily progressing since my diagnosis. Because of the many widely varied symptoms and variable speed of the progression of Parkinson's, it is a very difficult disease to predict. The most difficult for me is the uncertainty about which symptoms I will develop, how strong they will be and the speed which they will advance. I currently live a fairly normal life but have great uncertainty as to how long that will last. I have not yet developed the classic Parkinson's tremor but do walk somewhat like a duck, have stiffness in my back and neck, and I only swing my arms if I remember to tell my brain. I drool at night and become confused very easily. I have waves of exhaustion that can hit me very strongly and quickly.
On December 14, 2020, I saw my brain for the first time. My neurologist had ordered an MRI scan of my brain to check on the progress of my Parkinson's disease. After the scan was complete, I asked the technician for a CD of the "slices" of my brain. I wasn't exactly sure what I would do with them but was curious about what I would find on that CD. After looking at several hundred slices I became fascinated with the idea that everything about me and my entire life was somehow present in this incredibly complex organ.
I suddenly had a new subject to explore in my art. I didn't want simply to illustrate my brain, so I began this series by taking selfies of my face from different angles and expressions and then combined these
Lithograph with Digital Print
17 x 15 inches
with the MRI slices. It was fascinating to see my face and brain becoming one image and battling each other for dominance. Then I began a series of experiments with these composite images. I added other elements, like one of the orchids growing in our kitchen. I printed some of these images on different papers and in different sizes to see which worked best. I made about fifty variations of this image and settled on about a dozen that I felt worked.
Next, I experimented with cutting my head out to give it a clean profile, took some old lithographs that I had done mostly between 1980 and 1987, and collaged the heads onto them. Many of these prints had not been exhibited because I never felt that they were complete. Suddenly and mysteriously, they were complete. How and why this happened is still somewhat of a mystery to me. The lithographs had come from my brain more than forty years ago and now they had been reunited with my actual MRI brain.
I continued to experiment with other ways of combining these images. The most recent images are physically woven together like the tapestry of my life and my art. I have completed a couple dozen of these images.
WHERE I AM NOW
I showed the images to several friends and the response was consistently positive. They all felt that the images were "strong" and "powerful". I have spent a great deal of time lately attempting to figure out what they mean by that and why. Maybe their response is in part because they feel I am "brave" to face this disease face on. I really have little choice. Some of the images, especially the early ones, are startling images of me screaming and my brain looking like it is overpowering my face. These images are startling and a side of me that is unfamiliar to them. The most recent images are more autobiographical and familiar to them as earlier prints of mine but now have this face/brain image woven into them. Whatever the reason for their comments, I am inspired to journey on with this series and to reach my own conclusions.
l am concerned that the progression of my particular Parkinson's may not allow me to complete this series. Will my worsening cognitive and physical symptoms prevent me from finding some answers to the questions I have raised here? Or will this increase in symptoms simply become additional material for this series? Only time will answer that question.
One of the biggest concerns I have is becoming an increasing burden to my family. As my Parkinson's continues its relentless progression, and it will, I may become unable to walk or climb stairs or even stand unassisted. I will most likely be unable to take care of myself and even my basic needs like bathing and toiletry. My speech is likely to become more difficult to understand and my memory is likely to become weaker and weaker and I will become increasingly more and more dependent on those around me. Much of this sounds like the normal aging process. Of course, all of this depends on how much longer I live.
Lithograph with Digital Print
13 x 17 inches
MY AIM WITH THIS EXHIBITION
Have you ever thought about how your brain works and about who controls what? I couldn't help but wonder if I would have any control of this disease and how it would progress. How much productive time do I have remaining? Would I have time remaining to complete this exhibition? What would I do after that? Will I be capable of initiating a new project?
The purpose of this exhibition and catalogue are to ask questions about the function and limits of this incredible organ. My desire is that these images will inspire you to think more about your own brain and the way you arrive at conclusions. Our brains are at best the combination of what we inherited from our ancestors combined with what we have added since our birth. What we don't know is how this will all be used during our lifetime.
I am haunted by the fact that my brain supported my being sent to Vietnam by my government to kill and poison innocent women and children simply because they supported a Communist-Socialist form of government rather than a Democratic-Capitalist form of government. Why didn't my brain stop me? I had options. I could have gone to Canada or prison. What controlled my choice?
Our brains are capable of learning not to touch a hot stove to protect us from injury and also how to make a rifle that can shoot twenty rounds in two seconds. Our brain can find cures for many horrible diseases while it can also create and use chemical and atomic weapons capable of unimaginable death and destruction. If human beings are to survive on this planet, we must now find a way to control better how we use our brains. Otherwise, we will most certainly cause our own extinction.
C. David Thomas, DFA
Edited by Johanna Branson, PhD.