US Veteran Use Painting to Heal War Wounds

As an American painter and veteran, David Thomas's artwork reflects on the war. Despite the grim subject matter, his art acts as a bridge between Viet and American cultures.
June 26, 2023 | 09:21
US Veteran Use Painting to Heal War Wounds
Painter David Thomas (left) meets his Vietnamese friends at the exhibition in April 2023. Photo:

In the last days of April 2023, at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum (Hanoi) held the art exhibition "David Thomas and friends". The exhibition displays graphic works by David Thomas and 21 Vietnamese artists. This is an exchange between an American veteran with an anti-war spirit and artists who participated in a residency program in the US.

David Thomas was one of 58,000 American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam war. He was stationed in Pleiku for more than a year, and then returned to his hometown after finishing his military service.

The memory he always kept in his heart was the smiles of the highland children whenever they surrounded the Jeep that the young soldier stopped at any village.

Not participating in anti-war protests on the street, David Thomas painted many pictures of Vietnamese children, thereby reflecting the devastation of the war on this land.

David Thomas returned to Vietnam in 1987 in an attempt to find his way back to the country where he fought the war, to find a way to connect and mend the past.

Little did he know that that trip was the beginning of dozens of trips between the US and Vietnam over the next 30 years. Vietnam became a part of his life, his second home, a land with many relatives, friends, emotional and spiritual bonds, the place where his heart always belonged.

In 1988, he founded Indochina Arts Partnership (IAP). IAP organizes residency and programs for many Vietnamese artists to come to the US to study and work. They also organize art exchange programs to help artists from both sides bond with each other better.

IAP is also the first place to organize two major art exhibitions "An Ocean Apart" (1990 - 1994) and "As Seen By Both Side" (1995 - 2000), before and after the normalization of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations in 1995.

These two exhibitions showcase the works of important contemporary artists of the two countries. The exhibitions are displayed in major museums in the US and Vietnam, becoming one of the typical cultural and artistic events in terms of diplomacy, politics and culture.

David Thomas said "Vietnam - War" seems to be a catchphrase, a constant thought of any American in those years. However, he discovered other beauties of the land and the people of Vietnam, the beautiful souls, the desire for peace, and the resilience to overcome all the hardships of wartime.

US Veteran Use Painting to Heal War Wounds
A work of David Thomas. Photo:

Despite suffering from Parkinson, which was partly caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, David Thomas turned the disease into a source of creative inspiration, delivering a series of impressive graphic works.

He used digital printing to integrate images of his own brain with abstract motifs to reflect the dangers of chemical poisons, thereby voicing opposition to war.

According to painter Le Huy Tiep, former president of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, IAP is a bridge connecting art, culture, and people-to-people diplomacy between Vietnam and the US.

Although it ceased operations in 2019, for over 30 years, IAP created and operated dozens of large and small art exchange programs, bringing Vietnamese artists and intellectuals to visit and work in the US and vice versa.

Evaluating the works of artist David Thomas, painter Le Huy Tiep said that his works are strong messages condemning war and chemical poisons. It also reflects the persistent energy and creativity of an artist.

In resonance with the works of Vietnamese artists, the exhibition has raised its "voice" about the healing power of art.

The unique cyclo in Boston

In his house in Boston (USA), artist David Thomas keeps a cyclo. “I have been to Vietnam many times over the decades,” he said.

"In the 90s, cyclo was popular, especially in the old town area and the Metropole hotel. I usually find a familiar cyclo driver every time I come here. His name is Bang.

Around 1995, Bang suffered from back pain and wanted to quit his job. At that time, he was about to organize a wedding for his daughter and wanted to sell the cyclo for money. I bought it for US$100. At that time, US$100 was not big for Americans, but it was enough to pay for a decent wedding in Vietnam. We are both happy about it.

However, transporting the cyclo to my home in Boston was not an easy task. I had to ask for help from friends in Vietnam. They removed the cyclo, sent it to Laos, Cambodia, and then to the US by sea.

I repainted, and changed tires and roof. So far, it's been running fine. In the past, I used to take my grandchildren on this cyclo around the house. I really like this cyclo because it's a part of Hanoi, different from cyclo in Hue or Ho Chi Minh City," artist David Thomas said.

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