A horrifying moment in Iraq in 2004 forever scarred Kelly Thorndike, but also gave him a way to respond to violence and to plead for humanity … and a reason to paint.

Kelly Thorndike’s new art exhibition in Tenants Harbor is told by the ghosts of Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Block and an Iraqi boy known by his nickname, Young Elvis.

Wyeth’s evocative paintings from the Saint George River Valley where Thorndike grew up colored how Thorndike viewed his world. Block, an art teacher who lived on the midcoast, gave Thorndike his earliest painting lessons and taught him how to trust his vision and feelings.

And Young Elvis taught Thorndike why it all matters.

Young Elvis was a prisoner at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison when Thorndike was stationed there with other Maine National Guard soldiers in April 2004. That was during the worst of times at the prison. A few months before Thorndike arrived there, photos emerged of U.S. soldiers committing human rights abuses on prisoners. The publicity incited global condemnation of the United States and a spike in attacks by nearby insurgents.

Thorndike was on guard duty when a shell exploded a few yards from Young Elvis, who was given the name with affection because of his resemblance to a young Elvis Presley. The boy was signaling his appreciation for lunch when the shell hit. “He was blown to flinders while smiling at me and giving me the thumbs-up,” Thorndike said.

Thorndike, who was 40 at the time, was badly injured, suffering shrapnel wounds that left him bloodied and brain-injured. This week, the soldier-storyteller opens an exhibition of watercolor paintings at Granite Gallery in Tenants Harbor. Though the paintings look like pastoral scenes of the river valley in muted tones, “A Bit of Blue,” opening Thursday on Thorndike’s 55th birthday, directly relates to his experience in the Iraqi prison, which he calls “the monster under my bed.”

Kelly Thorndike an Iraq War veteran, paints in the studio of his Standish home  June 25. He is turning to art and the inspiration of his hometown to calm him nerves.

‘THERE ARE JUST NO WORDS’

“Pussy Willows” Image courtesy of Kelly Thorndike

There’s a reception for Thorndike at 5 p.m. Friday at the gallery, and the exhibition is on view only for a week, until July 25. That’s a small window for Thorndike to say all he wants to say, and it’s the first step in what he hopes will become an art-therapy project for wounded veterans of war. Thorndike understands why veterans are killing themselves by the dozen each day. “They can’t get the words out. There are just no words. There’s no language to articulate the feeling,” said Thorndike, who received a Purple Heart for his wounds. “Those 30 seconds ruined my life, but I became enlightened.”

Those 30 seconds are why he paints. Abu Ghraib represents to Thorndike what Guernica represented to Picasso: a reason to create, a response to violence and a plea for humanity.

His paintings appear tranquil. They are scenes of the river valley that he knows so well – ravens and crows, riverbank brambles and thickets and the soft blues skies of Maine. Those tranquil images are symbols for the physical and mental pain that Thorndike lives with every day. He came home from Iraq a shell of his former self – a better man for his experiences, he said, but wounded in ways that extended far beyond his physical body.

Painting helps him regain his sense of being and sense of place.

The crows and ravens represent the predator birds that flew over Abu Ghraib, seeking human body parts for their meals. To the locals, Abu Ghraib went by many names, and one of them was the House of the Raven. “The vultures would sit on the buildings and just look at us, waiting for people to get blown up. And then they were all over them like a piranha. Those bird-feeder pictures? That’s what I’m painting.”

The brambles represent the prison fences, and the peaceful manganese blue skies – Andrew Wyeth blue – are the colors of the prison walls and the first thing Thorndike remembers seeing after everything went black.

“I just remember a flash of blue right after I got blown up, and I mean right after – the violent force of the action, up goes down and down goes up,” he said. “Symbolism has permitted me not to cope, but to convey the extremes of combat and the extremes of being haunted.”

These are small paintings connected to big ideas, and people will see in them what they will. Thorndike thinks combat veterans will see what he sees. “Is there catharsis through art, and me being able to bend colors and shapes and talk about it a little for those who were there? Yes, because they can see in the margins,” he said. “I’ve got a painting I want to do called ‘Exploding Man.’ I’ve seen it. It’s like confetti. But I’m not going to call it ‘Exploding Man.’ I paint it everyday.”

HIS ART HISTORY

Thorndike’s art bona fides go back to his youth, by osmosis and practice. He grew up in Tenants Harbor, Thomaston and Port Clyde, where art hung thick in the air like sea salt. His peninsula and the one across the river a short boat ride away were home to many of Maine’s best-known artists of his youth, the Wyeths, William Thon and Bernard Langlais among them.

“Summer Rain” by Kelly Thorndike Image courtesy of Kelly Thorndike

One night, when he was working at the Samoset Resort in Rockland, he waited on Andrew Wyeth and Louise Nevelson, who were seated six tables apart. “I was their go-between,” he said.

His most important art teacher was the late Tom Block, a one-time Maine Art Educator of the Year who taught for 18 years in Thomaston, Cushing and St. George before moving on to Wiscasset High School. Block, who died last year, introduced Thorndike to the concepts of color, shape, texture and form. More important, he encouraged Thorndike to paint not what he sees but what he feels.

He met Block at Thomaston Grammar School as a sixth-grader. Block, who was fresh out of college at the time, remained a friend to Thorndike until his death and remains mentor now. “In high school, Tom just let me dive right in. He offered a super-8-mm filmmaking class that really jump-started my drawing skills with storytelling (via) illustration boards,” he said.

After high school, Thorndike suffered a spine injury while scalloping on Georges Bank. Block gave him supplies to paint with while he was laid up. For “A Bit of Blue,” Thorndike made the paintings with some of Block’s brushes “so he could be at the show in spirit.”

Taken together, the lessons of his teacher and those of his role models “gave me permission as a kid to look beyond and imagine what happens when you blow (the seed heads) off a dandelion,” he said. “I have been allowed in that room.”

In Iraq, Thorndike entered another room. A member of the 152nd Battalion of the Maine Nation Guard, he arrived in Iraq in February 2004 on a mission to guard the prison, which covered more than 200 acres outside of Baghdad and during Saddam Hussein’s reign held up to 50,000 prisoners. The U.S. took it over as a military prison.

The mission was immediate hell, Thorndike said, with thousands of prisoners inside the walls “in big pens, men and boys. It was a humanitarian disaster.”

The U.S. soldiers were outnumbered and under-supplied, and lived under the near-constant threat of snipers, suicide bombers, explosive ordnances, rocket and mortar fire. The insurgents outside the walls didn’t care about the prisoners inside or the U.S. guards watching them. That’s the nature of sectarian hate. Everyone inside the walls was a target, Thorndike said.

Thorndike didn’t have rank. He was a private. But he had experience with the Army Reserve Infantry and was working at the prison in Warren at the time of his deployment. “When we got the Abu-detainee ops mission, I was one of a few people with corrections experience, and my prior service in the infantry was helpful too.”

“The Meeting Tree” by Kelly Thorndike Image courtesy of Kelly Thorndike

He emerged as a leader, and because of his art skills, Thorndike’s superiors enlisted him to create a challenge coin, awarded to soldiers for special achievement. His studio had been a Bathist torture chamber when the prison was under the control of Saddam. Abu Ghraib was Saddam’s Auschwitz, Thorndike said, with hooks in the ceiling and drains in the floor instead of ovens. He remembers thinking, “This is a butcher shop.”

SUSTAINED BY WYETH AND HOMER

Before he got blown up and everything went black and then turned to blue, Thorndike remembers thinking about Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer. The colors of Iraq reminded him of Wyeth’s soft colors and somehow made him think of home and the St. George River. That’s powerful medicine on a battlefield. His mind wandered to Homer, Maine’s most famous artist, because Homer began his career as a war correspondent, drawing scenes from the Civil War.

Thorndike wasn’t doing exactly that, but he felt like he was chronicling something important, and he felt a kinship with Homer. They had both seen men die in battle. If he survived Iraq, maybe someday he would paint it.

Thorndike was in a guard tower when he got hit. It was lunch time, and the prisoners were complaining about the food. He wanted to appease them, and contacted the kitchen to ask for fresh food.

Just before Young Elvis flashed him a thumbs-up sign in appreciation, Thorndike noticed a truck slowing down on a road outside the prison. Seconds later, the mortar hit, obliterating his young Iraqi friend. Sandbags caught most of the shrapnel, but Thorndike got hit in the torso. He dropped upside down in a heap, his lower back burning like charcoal briquettes. He couldn’t hear, his vision was blurry.

His story, as well as the larger story of the 152nd, is told in the book “Packed for the Wrong Trip: A New Look inside Abu Ghraib and the Citizen-Soldiers Who Redeemed America’s Honor,” written by W. Zach Griffith and published in 2016.

Thorndike has been recovering since, and “A Bit of Blue” is one step along the way. His larger goal is to create a platform where combat veterans and the communities that support them “can meet on a river in Maine, to make our own art for ourselves. Combat vets who make their art with us on that river will take that blue home with them, hopefully in their soul.”

Thorndike has made several dozen, if not hundreds, of paintings for “A Bit of Blue.” He’s spent endless hours in the basement studio of his rental home in Standish working out his ideas, experimenting with colors and themes while trying to figure out what he wants to say and how to say it.

The Granite Gallery is tiny, and he can only show a fraction of what he has created over the winter, spring and early summer. He took a job washing dishes at a local restaurant to earn money so he could frame his paintings.

He is burdened by what he knows and what he has seen. Most people will look at his paintings and see Maine – not lighthouses and lobster boats, but muddy rivers, hungry birds and lonely landscapes dominated by the soft blue sky of home.