C. David Thomas, a Westbrook native now living in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in his home studio. Photo by Caileigh Grace Baker

The news came at a time when artist C. David Thomas was looking for a new subject.

He just didn’t expect it to be him.

Seven years ago, Thomas, a Westbrook native now living in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he believes to be caused by exposure to the toxic herbicide known as Agent Orange while he was stationed in Vietnam in 1969-70.

All things equal, Thomas said he would have preferred not to have Parkinson’s, but the disease has nonetheless spurred him to create the most personal and intimate work of his more than 50-year career.

Brainscapes, a series of collages that layer MRI scans of his brain with pictures of his face, will be exhibited from Thursday through May 15 at the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport’s Meetinghouse Arts Gallery on Main Street. The exhibit is titled “Finding Parkinsons: Doing Battle With My Brain.”

“As soon as I got the diagnosis, I thought it was something I could do something with it artistically,” said Thomas, 75. “But it wasn’t until I had a series of MRIs, which was two years ago now, that I had the visual stimulation to do a series of pieces.”

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His journey as an artist has evolved over the years, but it all traces back to Vietnam.

As a child growing up in Westbrook, Thomas said art was the only thing he did well in school. After he graduated from high school in 1964, he wanted to avoid being drafted into the military, so he attended the Portland School of Art, which is now Maine College of Art & Design. There were only a dozen or so people in his graduating class, and he keeps in touch with most of them.

“I think we’ve lost one or two,” he said.

Artist C. David Thomas created Brainscapes, a series of collages that layer MRI scans of his brain with pictures of his face.

By the time he finished art school in 1968, the Vietnam War had escalated, and Thomas could no longer get a deferment. Rather than be drafted, he enlisted, which allowed him some control over his role.

“I was trained as a draftsman to draw blueprints, for roads and bridges we were building over there,” he said.

Thomas was sent to Vietnam in April 1969 with the U.S. Army’s 20th Engineering Brigade. For the first six months, he didn’t see much beyond his base camp. For the second six months, he asked to do something else and ended up driving a Jeep. His most frequent trip was to the local Vietnamese laundromat, where he would drop off laundry and play with the local children while he waited.

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C. David Thomas, shortly after he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 and was sent to Vietnam. Photo courtesy of C. David Thomas

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I sort of fell in love with the country,” he said.

When his tour of duty was over, Thomas returned to the U.S. and was stationed in El Paso, Texas. He also resumed his artwork.

“I did a series of painting of those Vietnamese kids when I got back. That was sort of my protest of the war, showing these Vietnamese as humans,” he said.

He later did a series of portraits of Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, a figure he said is still misunderstood, especially in Western culture.

His time in El Paso was fortuitous. It’s where he learned printmaking, which would become his preferred medium.

“Oh, I just love the whole process of printmaking,” he said. “I like getting my hands dirty in ink.

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“But the other part is the socialism of printmaking. I believe in art for the masses. If you’re a printmaker, you do an edition of 50 or 100, which are more affordable for the masses than one painting.”

Once he was out of the Army for good, Thomas needed a career, so he turned to teaching. His time at Portland School of Art earned him a diploma but not a degree, so he went back to school, first at Tufts University for his bachelor’s degree, then Rhode Island School of Design for his master’s.

Thomas spent the next 25 years teaching art at Emmanuel College, a small Catholic school in Boston.

He thought of Vietnam often during that time and, by 1987, decided to take a sabbatical to return there.

He’s been going back every year and even created a nonprofit called the Indochina Arts Partnership “to promote through cultural exchanges reconciliation between the United States and the countries of Indochina.”

About a decade ago, Thomas started experiencing some mild symptoms. When they didn’t go away, he went to the doctor.

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Parkinson’s is a progressive disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms include tremors, loss of balance and effects on speech. The disease has no cure but is managed with medication.

“It’s an insidious disease because it doesn’t kill you. It slowly sort of takes you away from communicating and living. But you can live with it for decades,” he said.

The diagnosis wasn’t entirely surprising. Thousands of Vietnam veterans have developed Parkinson’s, and the VA has acknowledged that exposure to Agent Orange is a likely cause.

Once Thomas had MRI images taken of his brain, he became fascinated.

“There were all these little slices of my brain, sort of doing battle,” he explained.

A collage from from C. David Thomas’ Brainscapes series.

He started experimenting using pictures of his face and layering those with the MRI images. Technically, the prints were an extension of what he already had done as an artist, but it was wholly different, too.

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“Sometimes the brain is more dominant, sometimes the face is,” he said.

Penny Davis-Dublin is on the board of directors for the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Freeport, but she also went to high school with Thomas and is still friends with his sister. She heard about Thomas’ latest series and thought the small gallery would be perfect for it.

Thomas agreed and loved the idea of an exhibit closer to where he grew up.

“I’ve shown it to people and the response has been overwhelming, so that’s given me the confidence that people will see something in this series,” he said. “I think I most want people to understand that Parkinson’s doesn’t destroy everything. You can live with it and be productive.”


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