US veteran promotes arts to link peace and heal the wound

May 11, 2023 - 08:40
David Thomas, founder Indochina Arts Partnership and an US artist and American War veteran, paid a special visit to Việt Nam during his journeys in Đà Nẵng, Hà Nội and destination in central Việt Nam in April of 2023.

Hoài Nam

David Thomas kisses his portrait at an exhibition in Đà Nẵng. The US veteran has been building peace links between the US and Việt Nam through arts since he left Việt Nam in the late 1960s. — VNS Photo Công Thành 

David Thomas, founder of Indochina Arts Partnership and an US artist and American War veteran, paid a special visit to Việt Nam in April of 2023 with Đà Nẵng, Hà Nội and some localities in central Việt Nam being destinations.

He did not return to the country alone, but all his family members and artists from Boston also came for both the trip and art exhibitions in Đà Nẵng and Hà Nội.

David and other artists in the Boston Printmakers, in co-operation with local organisers in Hà Nội and Đà Nẵng, displayed a collection of 70 digital print paintings entitled: Finding Parkinson's – an introduction space of David Thomas; and Peace, Love, and Understanding, displaying 38 paintings of members from the Boston Printmakers.

All family members of David Thomas pose for a photo at his exhibition along with artists from Boston in Đà Nẵng. — Photo courtesy of Trinh Nguyễn 

Five members from Boston – Susan Denniston, Margo Lemieux, Colleen MacDonald, Marilyn Mase, and Carolyn Musket – also joined the exhibitions, and they donated 38 paintings from the Boston Printmakers to the fine arts museum of Đà Nẵng to make friendship exchanges closer than ever among people and artists of the two countries.

David Thomas, born in 1946 in Portland, Maine, the US, joined the American War (or Việt Nam War) as a combat technical assistant in the US Army in the Central Highlands region from 1969-70.

He returned to the US in 1970 to continue as an art professional and create artworks of Vietnamese people.

He visited Việt Nam in 1987, and the trip sped up his aspiration for him to build the Indochina Arts Partnership – a foundation that helps develop cultural exchange between Việt Nam and the US over the past 30 years.

David Thomas signs his books for visitors at an exhibition at Đà Nẵng Fine Arts Museum. — VNS Photo Công Thành 

David learned that he has Parkinson’s disease in 2015, most likely due to his exposure to Agent Orange during the Việt Nam War. Parkinson’s disease affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that enables messages to be sent between nerve cells.

“When I returned from my year in Pleiku City (Gia Lai Province), I wanted to express my feelings about that year before they faded into the background. My tour in Việt Nam changed my life. I was compelled to find a way to express the asymmetry of the effects of the war on the US and on Việt Nam. We mourn our American soldiers and civilians killed in Việt Nam, Laos, and Cambodia. As a result of chemicals sprayed and high tonnage of bombs dropped by US military, this number will continue to increase in Việt Nam for many decades if not centuries."

“The purpose of this exhibition and catalogue is 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 and what we have added since our birth. What we don’t know is how this will all be used during our lifetime.”

David said: “Little did I know when I returned to Việt Nam 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 Việt Nam, and to humanise the people we had dehumanised 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."

“I 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.”

David Thomas and other members of the Boston Printmakers join the curtain-raiser event of the exhibition in Đà Nẵng. Another exhibition of the US artists was also organised in Đà Nẵng in April of 2023. — VNS Photo Công Thành 

Sharing his time in Việt Nam, David said: “I was a combat engineer/artist in Pleiku from 1969 until 1970. My job for six months was to draw blueprints for projects our battalion was building, things like roads and bridges. Building roads often involved killing all the trees and green vegetation for which we used various defoliants including Agent Orange. My Parkinson's is a result of being exposed to that Agent Orange. My children have no symptoms yet but I didn't have any symptoms for over 40 years after returning from Việt Nam in 1970. And I understand that the effects can even skip generations."

“I left the Army in 1971, and went to graduate school. During that time I made many paintings and prints of Vietnamese children who I played with in Pleiku. My way of protesting the American War was with these paintings. My health remained good until 2015 when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease."

He said: “When I returned to Việt Nam in 1987, I saw firsthand the pain and suffering that was being caused by wrong US policies against Việt Nam. I wanted to do something to try to influence US policy and bring the people of both countries closer together. I am an artist so I started organising exhibitions with artists from both countries. All of the artists I contacted were eager to help me. I then started the non-profit organisation called the Indochina Arts Partnership (IAP) to develop more exchange programmes between Việt Nam and the US. Most of our funding came from individual donations and small family foundations that supported my work. Nearly 100 Vietnamese artists have been to the US under IAP sponsorship.” 

David said he married in 1968, and this year was the first time that all members of his family joined this special trip to Việt Nam.

“I married my wife Jean on June 15, 1968. This year, we will celebrate our 55th anniversary. We have two adult children, Aaron and Mandy, and four grandchildren, Caileigh, Jocie, JD and Charlie. Aaron and Mandy have been here several times to visit us but this is the first time for our grandchildren. All of my children and grandchildren share my love for Việt Nam and the Vietnamese people. Dozens of Vietnamese artists have stayed at our home and played with our children and grandchildren."

Untitled, a painting of David Thomas is on display to the public at Đà Nãng City's Fine Arts Museum. A collection of 38 printed paintings from the Boston Printmakers were donated to the museum. — VNS Photo Công Thành 

The American artist also sent his message through his exhibition and other artists from Boston.

“My message for Finding Parkinsons is to remind Americans that the war in Việt Nam and the US continues. Unexploded ordinance and Agent Orange are only two ways the war continues. I think that artists share a special bond and are a very effective way to make links between countries who have a poor or no relationship. I hope that the artists of both countries will follow the lead of the artists who gladly worked with the IAP."

Mandy Baker, David’s daughter, said she has visited Đà Nẵng and Việt Nam several times, and she felt so happy to join this trip with all her family members. — VNS