Thursday, February 18, 2010

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C. David Thomas

Wendy Seadia writer


Little Lan, 1971, mixed media on paper, 30 x 22 inches

"My art work actually saved my life,” says painter and printmaker C. David Thomas.

In 1968, Thomas joined the US Army and was sent to Pleiku, South Vietnam as a combat engineer and artist. For one year he drafted blueprints, drove a Jeep, and drew pictures of Vietnamese children.

By lucky happenstance, Thomas also drew a picture of a fellow soldier’s girlfriend. In lieu of payment for the drawing, he asked his friend, who worked in personnel, to change his records and shorten his stint in Vietnam from twelve to eleven months. The friend complied. In so doing, Thomas was able to return to the United States weeks early. The helicopter on which he routinely rode was shot down during the twelfth month. Nobody survived. There was a 50/50 chance Thomas would have been on that plane, he recalls.

Thomas’s involvement in the war made him a pacifist. And that ideology continues to shape the majority of his subsequent work. Upon his arrival home, to soothe his battered spirit and make sense of his recent experience, he worked for two solid weeks creating a series of pencil drawings and acrylic paintings of Vietnamese subjects.

That action, he says, became his salvation from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1987, he donated those compositions to the Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi when he revisited Vietnam for the first time since the 1960s.

The following year he founded the Indochina Arts Partnership (IAP). The IAP is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to promote reconciliation between the United States and the countries of Indochina through cultural and educational exchanges. He has since returned to the region nearly 75 times in various capacities.


Ho Chi Minh, mixed media, 30 x 22 inches


For the past four decades Thomas, who holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), has been plying his craft as an artist, educator, and humanist. For 25 years he was a Professor of Studio Art at Emmanuel College in Boston and in1997 he received the school’s Faculty Excellence Award. From 2001 to 2008, Thomas taught at Massachusetts College of Art.

Four years ago he and his wife, Jean, sold their Newton home and moved to a 300-year-old carriage house in Wellesley which they redesigned. They added a garage and built Thomas’s new studio above it. The studio is situated close to the main portion of the house, up a flight of stairs, yet far enough away to provide the sanctuary a prolific artist requires.

The charming 600 square-foot space is filled with dozens of Vietnamese treasures: colorful kites, a whimsical butterfly, and vivid yellow dragons, each 100 feet long and made of silk and bamboo, which sway gently from the ceiling like Alexander Calder mobiles. There are straw baskets of varying shapes and sizes and scores of books line the wall. The 40-year-old printing press Thomas uses dominates the far end of the room. Light streams in from a large northern-exposure window next to his computer, beyond which lie the protected wetlands that make up the backyard. Deer often wander by.


Photograph of Thomas taken on Engineer Hill, Pleiku, South Vietnam in 1969


Scattered about the studio are photographs of Thomas at various stages of his professional life. A five-by-seven inch photo of his new granddaughter sits in full view on his work table. There’s also a set of Vietnamese brushes nearby, made of bamboo, water buffalo horn, feathers, and porcelain, which Thomas says are just too beautiful to use.

Visual remembrances of Vietnam that Thomas has constructed are on display everywhere: sensitive portraits, striking lithographs, and haunting photo-collages. His life’s work is all about antiwar motifs and nonviolence, he says. “I think of what I do as trying to improve the human condition in some way…Vietnam is the rope that runs through my work. Within the context of that rope, the threads are Ho Chi Minh, the insanity and randomness of war, the Vietnamese people, and the Vietnamese culture,” he explains.

Thomas’s diverse collection of work is a dazzling array of creativity, and a testament to his passion, focus, and accomplishment. He defines that work as a cross between fine art that is realistic, not abstract but figurative, and graphic design.


Playing Soldier, 2009, digital print with pastel, 32 x 22 inches

Although he loves drawing and printmaking, since 2002 Thomas’s primary medium has been the “electronic canvas.” “Creating digital imagery offers constant surprise,” he says. He digitally manipulates his photographs and renderings before applying charcoal and pastels. Rather than allowing the technology to dictate his aesthetic, Thomas says he finds the computer a stimulating tool that enables him to make easily readable statements he needs to make now.

To date, his art has been an integral part of more than 25 one-person shows and hundreds of group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad. He has been the recipient of numerous accolades and awards. Many of Thomas’s creations are marketed to museums and university galleries, rather than on Newbury Street or the South End. And, he says, he has had great success with juried exhibitions.

In an attempt to keep his vision fresh and process vital, Thomas tries not to repeat himself stylistically, or become a slave to commercialization. But it’s his continuous trips to Vietnam, several times each year, to do research and conduct cultural exchange programs, that really “keep his creative juices flowing,” he says. Thomas is clearly enamored of the Vietnamese culture and people whom he refers to as, “gentle, generous, kind, and incredibly wonderful.”

From 2002 to 2004, Thomas was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Vietnam. During that time, he and his wife lived in Hanoi. As part of his work, he redesigned all the marketing materials for the National Fine Arts Museum, reconfigured Cultural Window Magazine for the World Publishing House, and wrote monthly art reviews.


An Artist's Portrait of HO CHI MINH, 2000, lacquer, silk, Vietnamese “do” paper, letterpress and ink jet, 9 x 12 x 2 inches, edition of 100


Thomas maintains his most significant creative work is his artist’s book on Ho Chi Minh, a collaborative effort with Charles Fenn, a British writer. The fictional diary, 116 pages of images and text, printed only in English, is in almost every rare book and artist’s book collection in the United States. A mere 100 copies were printed of this exquisite work that took five years to complete (from 1995 to 2000) and cost more than $50,000 to produce. That endeavor is one of the defining accomplishments of his career, he says.

He also takes great pride in the Vietnam Art Medal he won in 2000. Thomas was the first foreigner to receive this highest art honor given by the Vietnamese government. In 2003, Thomas’s son and daughter accepted the RISD Alumni Award for Leadership and Service, on behalf of their father who was in Hanoi at the time.

Thomas’s latest work is autobiographical and a metaphor for his life, he says. The series of 25 digitally-created “puzzlepeaces” contains iconic religious imagery (Christ, the Buddha), combined with horrific war imagery (the My Lai Massacre, Kim Phuc), juxtaposed against snippets of family photographs (his father at age 22, himself in military garb). This powerful antiwar statement will be on exhibit at Northeastern University this fall.

Thomas says he wants his work to reach an audience of young people and make them question whether war is the right solution to anything. He is certain it is not.



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