Kelly Thorndike’s Search for Home

Introduction and interview by Alan Magee


The hardest part, Kelly Thorndike told me, was to learn to look into a clear blue sky without terror. It wasn’t the long nights of darkness or the fear of violent men; it was the sky. The mortars came in from there. They didn’t come with the prolonged whine we know from war movies, but silently. When you talk with Kelly the best plan is just to listen; you will learn things that you might never have known otherwise.

Kelly has loved to draw and paint since childhood. After years of making a living as a Grand Banks fisherman, a Maine State Prison guard, a preschool teacher, and a restaurant waiter and occasional mural painter for master chef Marcelle LaCasse at the Samoset Resort in Rockland, Kelly’s career as an artist was beginning to show promise. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 upended his plans and nearly ended his artistic ambitions.

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Kelly Thorndike, October Rain—Georges River, ink, 12 x 12 in., 2017.

Kelly was part of the Maine National Guard’s First Battalion/152nd Field Artillery (Forward) which was deployed, inexplicably, to guard the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His arrival coincided with the worldwide release of photographs depicting horrific human rights abuses against detainees by the American guards and interrogators who had preceded Kelly’s division. Retaliation waged by Iraqi insurgents against the new American custodians of Abu Ghraib was immediate and brutal.

Kelly was wounded in a mortar explosion and received a Purple Heart. He came home to Maine, as he explains it, “burdened by knowledge” for which “there are just no words.”

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Kelly Thorndike, Feels Like Rain, watercolor, 8 x 8 in., 2018.

But Kelly returned to painting, and found the language with which to tell his story along the banks of the Georges River—by the mudflats, the thickets of trees and bramble, and the glimpses of clear blue sky.

His paintings are both shouts of praise for a sublimely wild and untamable natural world and metaphors for the tumult and pain of war. Thorny branches become interchangeable with tangles of barbed wire, clusters of red winterberries stand in for a deadly mortar explosion, and hungry crows are reminders of our constant vulnerability in a world that is both beautiful and merciless. Kelly does not force these darker associations on viewers; they are available but not compulsory. “An artist,” he explains, “should not throw the ball and catch it too.” His works affirm that all of our guardrails of familiarity and comfort are illusory. The natural world is marvelous, but its dangers are not mitigated by its beauty.

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Kelly Thorndike, Summer Rain, watercolor, 6 x 6 in., 2018.

I first saw Kelly’s work at an expansive exhibition he had organized for combat veterans at the Wiley’s Corner Grange on the St. George Peninsula. I was drawn to Kelly’s paintings instantly. Several of his small pieces were displayed in an army tent on the lawn in front of the Grange Hall. The tent contained a cot, a chair, and a work table on which several small works on paper were laid out. I remember, in particular, a watercolor of a bird’s skull on a sheet of paper no bigger than five by seven inches. Despite its modest size it filled my field of vision and seemed to me dense with experience and authenticity. Although I was with that painting for just a few minutes, I can still see it.

The tent, with its smell of canvas and grassy floor, was a perfect gallery setting for Kelly. It was arranged to serve as a portable field studio complete with rudimentary drawing and writing supplies. The tent’s interior was a work of art in itself. Its message was clear: this is all you need.

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Kelly Thorndike, Ghosts, ink, 8 x 8 in., 2018.

In the process of finding his own way home, Kelly has discovered a way to bring other traumatized veterans along with him—leading them along the path of creativity that he had cleared for his own recovery. Kelly is both an extraordinary painter and an expressive, poetic writer. No one could tell this story better than Kelly Thorndike himself.

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Kelly Thorndike, Murder of Crows Triptych, ink and watercolor, 18 x 24 in. x (3), 2022.

An interview with Kelly Thorndike (KT) by Alan Magee (AM)


AM: Was art important to you when you were in grammar and high school, and later, as a young man in St. George, Maine?

KT: My earliest memories of drawing are from about five years old. Coloring books bored me. Then I discovered the Lascaux Cave paintings in an old National Geographic, which lit a lifelong fire in me. Who taught those neolithic creatives how to draw? What permission did they need from others? They drew what they knew, the place they were from, with what they had to work with; they didn’t have any money, and neither did I.

That was on Green Street in Thomaston, Maine in 1968–69. I was six and would hang out at the landing with my friend Jimmy Weaver, whose name is now on the Port Clyde Fishermen’s Memorial. Neither of us could swim a stroke. I would beg blood worms from the diggers to catch flounder. Jimmy had a jackknife; he would bore snot-wrinkles (whelks) from their shells and chew them, because his grandfather had told him they tasted like bubblegum.

I remember those diggers being hardworking men, smokers of Camel cigarettes; their tattoos gave away their service during the big war, Korea.

My first formal painting class occurred during the summer of 1977 when I was in seventh grade. Mrs. Seastead offered a summer class for beginners at her home near the Dunn and Elliot Boathouse. My mum insisted I go. Mrs. Seastead yanked some flowers from near the kitchen steps: “paint these.” Then she handed me a student-grade oil paint set.

In high school, I hoped it would be possible to make a living with my art. Books were my only educational resource—books about being an artist rather than big coffee table books full of ideas. NC Wyeth was a favorite of mine then. The book Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis unlocked a vault of knowledge for me. After absorbing those lessons, I could do them with ease.

AM: Can you tell me about your art teacher, Thomas Block, and how he guided you during those early years?

KT: Thomas Block gave me a freakishly long leash as one of his students. He wasn’t really a painting teacher; pottery, printmaking, and Super 8 animation were his strengths then. His colleague, Robert Smith, let me into his studio to build a portfolio. I learned how to be a painter there.

In my senior year of high school, I had a free pass to the art room, day and night. His classroom had no budget, but he let me take paper, as much and of whatever kind I desired. That cosmic gift indirectly taught me how to scale ideas up, first on paper, and years later, just in my head. I learned that there is no substitute for a fantastic idea, and ideas have to be hunted down where they live.

After Tom passed away, I was asked by his partner to help pack his studio and take most of it home with me. Tom’s art table is now my dining room table. I have his grandfather’s hunting knife in my studio and use it to sharpen pencils. I have his books, brushes, pencils, rulers, and the rest.

Mr. Block thought it important that I try to attend the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art & Design). I got in on the strength of my portfolio—no SATs, and no money at all. But they asked me to leave at mid-year because of the funding realities then; this was in 1982–83. They didn’t offer scholarships. In the end, the Army Reserves got my attention. A story began there.

After coming home from Iraq in 2004 I began retracing my boyhood steps, this time as an adult artist from Maine with combat-induced PTSD, a TBI (traumatic brain injury), and other injuries.

A print of Andrew Wyeth’s The Patriot (a portrait of Ralph Cline from Port Clyde; I grew up with his grandchildren) hangs in the Togus VA Medical Center’s waiting room. It was there that I had the awakening to paint my war, with ideas sourced from the St. George watershed, to help explain the unexplainable. The feeling of “Home” eludes me still. Chasing ideas became waypoints back to myself.

AM: What were the earliest subjects of your paintings?

KT: My first subjects as a young artist were animals because I wanted someday to illustrate children’s literature. At the same time, my line drawings were evolving into cartoons. I admired the work of Gary Larson, Johnny Hart, and the artists who worked for MAD magazine.

Then, Robert Henri’s book The Art Spirit became my portal for thinking like a painter. Monhegan Island’s painterly history took on new importance—not just a summer person’s destination, but the place my people are from. That newfound verve had me taking trips out to the island on rainy November Wednesdays, when the island was the same place at noontime or midnight.

I realized that so many American painters had made that journey to Maine. “Why?” I wondered. I was overthinking it all. Just paint. But rejections from midcoast galleries became a norm from 1987–90.

About that time, master chef and restaurateur Marcel LaCasse hired me at the Samoset Resort, and I fell in love with France, farm to table, Eric Satie, and Marcel’s mandates and example for high achievement. Marcel commissioned me to paint monstrous pop-up murals in the ballroom for corporate in-house conventions—something new at the time. I painted those murals and still worked my fifty-to-sixty-hour weeks at the hotel. Those panels would get painted over like theater sets, and discarded.

Animals and birds became a focus of study again. Becoming a children’s book illustrator was my goal during the 1990s. My hope was to work for New York City publishers—then 11 September 2001 happened.

My plans were crushed beneath the World Trade Center towers on 9/11 along with all those poor souls. Everything changed for me, as it had for nearly everyone else. I had my first solo exhibit at Gallery One in Rockland on the first anniversary of 9/11, and sold most of the work in that exhibition.

But by the late winter of 2003, I found myself deployed to Ganci Compound/Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, with the Maine Army National Guard. We had never heard of that place. Ten days later the entire world had heard about Abu Ghraib prison.

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Kelly Thorndike, Hell’s Corridor at Abu Ghraib, photograph, 2004.


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Kelly Thorndike, Red, White and You—House of the Raven (study), mixed media, 8 x 10 in., 2018.

AM: You’ve spoken about your respect for the work of Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer. How did the imagery and example of these two artists guide you toward finding a style and voice of your own after your life-altering experiences at Abu Ghraib prison?

KT: I never will get back completely, my art helps me to be okay with all that. War enlightened me to what “Home” can feel like. The maxims “grow where you’re planted” and “paint what you know” are my focus these days. The Georges River is a portal for me, that’s all. My soul recharges there, in the fog, clam-flats, and rain.

I returned home from Iraq with an intense desire to paint my world. I didn’t realize then that my rocket-induced TBI would require me to teach myself not only how to paint Maine again, but that I had to reconnect with why painting was important to me at all. Abu Ghraib prison had me living in a soul-wrenching fog. Short-term memory problems became an impassable obstacle for learning new things. All the while, remembering my prewar self was an adventure in morbidity and loss, because so much had irretrievably changed, and not for the better.

With Wyeth’s works as waypoints, I began the long walk back to self by revisiting the Georges River Watershed at clam-flat level, on foot, and in my kayak. With the skills I had acquired as a soldier, I kept the watercolor paper white in the bushes, clam-flats, fog, and rain—like safeguarding bandages and bullets in a combat zone. I retooled my combat skills into a new art-making practice. I could paint, night, day, rain, snow, ice, fog, heat, and bugs, notwithstanding my TBI.

So Wyeth’s paintings guided me to stop trying to feel home, but to begin painting the people and places most dear to me—to actually get onto those clam-flats and paint. Maybe I would find those feelings, and home, there. The reality that art is medicine hides inside those discoveries for anyone who seeks them.

On the St. George River I rediscovered why I was an artist at all—before, during, and most importantly, after that war. My “why” gradually evolved into this realization: I had to teach others, combat veterans in particular, the importance of doing the same for themselves.

AM: In our conversations you’ve mentioned the word “vicissitude” (a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant). What does the word vicissitude mean to you? Does it define the moment—your time at Abu Ghraib—that divided the before and after in your life?

KT: During my time at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 I became fond of asking my leadership: “is this the new bad?” In a combat zone, any version of normality quickly degrades into some strange caricature of itself. It was important for me to stay focussed, not on why we were sent there, but to embrace the reality that we were living in a war zone, and many people seemed to want us dead or gone. Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 became a boiling, fetid example of highly toxic vicissitude.

AM: What did you experience when you arrived at Abu Ghraib prison with fellow Maine National Guard soldiers in 2004, just months after the photos documenting human rights abuses against prisoners at Abu Ghraib were released to the world?

KT: Like King Kong before they shoot him off the Empire State Building, everyone recently dumped into FOBAG04 (Forward Operating Base Abu Ghraib 2004) began to realize that the Abu Ghraib prison torture photos—recently busted free on the internet, and fueled by a global WTF-America—would make us targets. Those images were transmitted like a virus to every global publication with access to electricity, an internet connection, or the spoken word. Soon afterwards, those photos and the story behind them would wreak havoc on the ground inside and outside the walls of Abu Ghraib prison.

The immediate outcome from those images of real torture by the infidel occupier (the US) reverberated in the countryside of the Sunni Triangle like a fully enraged 200-foot primate. The horizon began to burn. Mortars walked onto us day and night, and IEDs began to stomp up-armored HUMVEEs into the pavement with regularity.

One of the released photographs showed a female soldier smiling gleefully over a dead and severely disfigured Iraqi man. For me, this image was the worst of all—the most damaging to humanity, to my soul, and our then unstated mission. I told my mates: “this one picture will become a recruiting poster for the Wahhabis.” This image says, without a single word, in any language: “your little sister thinks torturing Arabs and Muslims to death is a fun idea.” Of course, people soon began to die.

The torture and human rights abuses shown in those photographs happened prior to our arrival. I was on the ground only a few days when the photos dropped. We had heard something about an incident at the prison and the photos while we were in Kuwait. Nobody, I mean nobody, had a clue as to what would happen next. The 152 FA (the 152 Field Artillery Forward) from Maine was supposed to be in Afghanistan, not Iraq. They dumped us in there, lost our equipment, then closed the lid.

Being an artist before Abu Ghraib turned out to be strong, healing medicine for me. My creative process helped to insulate me there—giving me cosmic permission to peer over the rim of my own human condition and walk through the barely-articulable madness of it all. Winslow Homer did the same during the Civil War.

I know why combat veterans are committing suicide at an unforgivable rate. They simply don’t want to break the psyches and souls of the people who love them the most in their attempts to explain.

People who care for me would comment: “it must have been terrible.” I found myself replying matter-of-factly: “the exploding boy that I knew was the worst…”

AM: In the comfortable world I live in, crows are an enjoyable, entertaining presence as they cruise in and congregate for the food scraps we put out for them. But crows and ravens play a darker, metaphorical role in your imagery. What are the crows in your paintings expressing, symbolizing, or saying to viewers? What was your direct experience with these birds at Abu Ghraib?

KT: Like you, I really enjoy crows, ravens, and magpies. Maine has Fish Crows along the coast that are a bit smaller than the common crow. On coastal islands you can find both.

In Iraq, West Asian carrion crows would perch on our towers, buildings, and in the vast date groves near Abu Ghraib. One of several names given to Abu Ghraib is “House of the Ravens.”

While at Abu Ghraib, mortars and rockets impacting on or near our positions became a common occurrence. IEDs would detonate down range and the crows would fly off in that direction like they do in Cushing after a rifle shot during deer season.

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Kelly Thorndike, House of Strange Fathers, ink, 8 x 10 in., 2015.

I made the choice to paint crows and ravens because they are a part of the story of Abu Ghraib. Associations with Poe’s “The Raven,” and stories from antiquity make the symbolism of crows and ravens accessible across many cultures.

I was told about, and we later found, human bones with choppy marks on them. During the Baathist years at Abu Ghraib prison, so many of the regime’s victims were murdered there that they had no more room to bury them—so they chipped the corpses with a plastic recycling shredder.

The crows at Abu Ghraib prison seemed hardwired to treat that hellish place as a bird feeder. I don’t blame birds for being birds, then or now.

AM: While you were stationed at Abu Ghraib prison, you kept a studio in a former Baathist torture chamber. When you told me about this I thought of you being somehow infused by or steeped in the history of that room. It seems to me that a space can be haunted—but in a way that requires no belief in the supernatural. I’ve felt this way several times—in rooms at Buchenwald and then again at Auschwitz/Birkenau. We’ve talked about the hooks around the perimeter of a Buchenwald basement ceiling that I can’t forget, and the ceiling hook and floor drain in your Abu Ghraib “studio.” What have you brought home, emotionally, from that hook, that drain, and from that room?

KT: This iron hook was planted in the ceiling above my cot where I slept most nights at Abu Ghraib.

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Kelly Thorndike, Abu Hook.

Hauntings? Yes, that place was haunted, we would see apparitions in the evenings; the Arabs call them Jinns. Saddam Hussein had murdered some 100,000 people at Abu Ghraib before we ever set foot there.

One evening, very late, I was walking to my cot through a narrow corridor—too narrow for soldiers wearing gear to pass each other without one or both yielding and sidestepping. Since I was a low-ranking troop, I would reflexively always do the yielding.

A figure of a man with no gear walked towards me in this passageway, the human form backlit by a small light. As I stepped sideways to let this figure scoot past towards the latrine, about five inches from my face, I witnessed an Arab zombie in human form, with a gaping mouth and traumatized eyes, slide past me, and then vanish. Five steps later, I was on my cot, staring up at this hook in the ceiling.

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Kelly Thorndike, Dream State, ink, 12 x 12 in., 2018.

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Kelly Thorndike, Mirrored, black gesso, 18 x 24 in., 2022.

I had been experiencing quite a bit of “mission creep”—which included making artwork. I had the advantages of my age, then thirty-nine, my absolute lack of rank, my prior military service in the Infantry, and a lot of civilian work experience. Most importantly, I could draw pictures pretty much under any conditions, day or night.

The higher-ranking officers had a few projects for me to tackle. I needed a secure space to leave source materials and tools, away from the normal war stuff and the constantly evolving mission that swirled around us. I had a single chair, a folding portable army desk near a window, and a few combat zone-friendly art tools. There were no easels and oil paints, but some #2 pencils, mangled Sharpies, and a preciously short supply of white computer paper. I still had my day job there, and the studio became a very cool creative space, but with a massive trade-off.

The room was approximately fifteen feet square, with powder blue-tiled floor and walls and no plumbing or electricity. It was not originally designed by the Baathists as a room to live in; it was a chamber. I had once worked in an eerily similar space years before, back in Maine, in a poultry slaughterhouse.

The room had a window that opened to an almost hidden courtyard with a single, nearly dead tree and a concrete table. The courtyard was of a squarish configuration, and from my window I could see similar single windows, all accessible from the courtyard. They looked like the take-out windows of a fast-food restaurant in a subtropical food court.

This studio had two very unsettling features: an overly large brass drain in the center of the room, and four iron meat hooks in the ceiling, each one close to the room’s corners. The tile floor sloped, with ghoulish efficiency, towards the large brass drain in the room’s center.

I met a very intelligent older gentleman, an Iraqi interpreter at the time, who worked with some of the shadowy troops associated with the war on terror. He was more like a local historian than an interpreter. The working atmosphere in that AO (area of operations) was very professional and focused on problem-solving at ground level. I asked the man about these chambers, and the odd efficiency of their “to-go” windows in the courtyard.

His reply was convincing, in part, because you couldn’t dig a horseshoe pit without finding human bones in the sandy clay soil around this place.

He told me that during the Baathist’s reign of terror at Abu Ghraib prison, when Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay Hussein ran a literal shop of unimaginable horrors there, this would happen: the dungeon masters would hang political enemies (two brothers or a father and son) from opposing iron hooks in the ceiling. Then the conversation would begin. A Baathist interrogator would lean in the window from the exterior courtyard, and ask the accused questions while smoking cigarettes and keeping his sandals clean, going from window, to window, to window, around the courtyard.

If the victims’ answers were not good enough, they would be beaten and systematically butchered and eviscerated by the sadistic dungeon minions inside the chamber. He told me of tortured children ratting out fathers, brothers forced to say anything to save brothers. The resulting gore would slide down the brass drain, and be rinsed from the walls with buckets of water. I had noticed a non-functioning water faucet in the hallway outside my new creative space—the kind of faucet you see in old farms in Maine, with a hook on the spigot to hold the bucket’s handle.

Sometimes, it would briefly rain pretty hard at Abu Ghraib. Green life would shoot from the ground, and tiny flowers filled the breeze with a perfume normally found in ballrooms or at dinner parties.

That old tree in the courtyard would make futile attempts at new life when the rains arrived. That tree and the carrion crows who perched on its withered limbs were the only surviving witnesses to what happened there before we arrived.

Yes, that place still haunts me as an artist, and I’m a better human being, living my post war Now because of it.

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Thorndike, Arms Wide Open, charcoal sketch, 8 x 10 in., 2016.

When the rains came hard, the groundwater would creep up the broken drainage system connected to the studio’s brass floor drain.

I remember sitting alone in that space one morning having coffee. The sun had just come up after a string of rainy days. Then, the unmistakable aroma of reconstituted gore crept from the brass floor drain and filled the studio. A cosmic reminder to never forget the suffering of so many nameless souls, if I ever made it home to another studio.

AM: At Abu Ghraib, you formed a friendship with an Iraqi boy whom you and your fellow soldiers affectionately nicknamed Young Elvis. You witnessed the boy’s instantaneous and horrific death by a mortar explosion while he was giving you the thumbs-up in appreciation for a good meal.

You’ve used the term or title Exploding Boy as a subject that you will someday paint, adding that, “I paint it everyday.” Some of your paintings depict aspects of nature that are a world away̵ from Iraq, and from that event—a cluster of red winterberries, for example. How did you find your way to these metaphors for a moment of unspeakable horror?

KT: I met Young Elvis on my third assigned watch in Compound Ganci 7-1. The three Elvis brothers already had their nicknames by the time I met them.

Old Elvis died at the same time as his brother Young Elvis. I know that to be true because the rocket that killed them both hadn’t killed me.

A week or so before 20 April 2004, from my tower, I had spotted Young Elvis walking around on his side of the wire. He was about fourteen years old. He carried a tattered soccer ball in his hands, recently deflated by the coils of razor wire that ringed the bases of most chain link fences.

I reeled Young Elvis in from the orbiting clusters of detained men on his side of the fence. I gestured toward him and he tossed me the deflated ball. “Moi-sien” he said: “no-good.”

It wasn’t long before one of the other Mainers found a brand new ball still inside its box. The choice was made to make a slit in the side of the old ball with a war knife, stuff the new ball inside the old one, then pump the new ball up. The slit in the old ball was healed with a few turns of missile tape.

From my tower I could see Young Elvis and his brothers about to pass my AO again. I whistled to Young Elvis and showed him the new up-armored soccer ball. His eyes lit up when he saw it. As he trotted closer his brothers smiled.

My friends were right about their appearance: they were the Elvis brothers.

Our very short friendship formed there and then. Young Elvis now possessed the only functioning soccer ball, which gave him some horsepower among the other detainees inside Gansi compound.

But on 20 April 2004, Young Elvis was, in an instant, reduced to shredded human skin hanging on the wire a few yards from my position in one of the guard towers. The rest of him, and of a few others, had been blown all over my position and beyond still. The crows and ravens flew away with what they could snag. I was in shock—literally—from the explosions, while making myself remember everything, all of it.

Like Homer during the Civil War while he was working for Harper’s, I had an elevated front seat to it all.

The osfoor (European house sparrows) swarmed the bodies of the dead nearest me, wolfing down the rice the detainees had just sat down cross-legged to eat.

As my fellow Mainers gathered shredded human remains onto disposable plastic plates (the same ones the detainees and soldiers alike ate from, three meals a day) I heard a voice, barely, because the rockets had rendered me nearly deaf.

“Shaheen! Shaheen! I can’t find my brother!” a man pleaded, waving his arms frantically, looking up toward me in my blasted tower atop a shipping container now full of big jagged holes. Looking up at me wide-eyed and pleading was Young Elvis’s brother—Old Elvis. The crows were flying away with what remained of his little brother. Moments before, Young Elvis was running towards me smiling with his lunch, giving me a very excited thumbs-up. The rockets that didn’t kill me, blew him to flinders. Almost immediately after the mortars and rockets had stopped walking all over us, I could see Old Elvis lying dead on the ground. The newly flattened soccer ball near his head was covered in blood.

Something happened to me in that moment, way, way, deep down inside of my soul.

Those images represent my last memories of my fourteen-year-old friend. This time of year, he’s with me constantly. As you say, Alan, art offers no solace. My artwork these days are attempts to define those truths for me now—like cave art, not therapy.

These are some paintings that illustrate that sequence of events.

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Kelly Thorndike, After Party, watercolor, 18 x 24 in., 2018.

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Kelly Thorndike, Cardinal—Winter, watercolor, 10 x 10 in., 2018.

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Kelly Thorndike, Segue, watercolor, 4 x 6 in., 2020.

AM: You’ve seen human suffering and human behavior at its worst, and you have spoken about those people among us who would “drill a hole in our heads” without hesitation or remorse. This pathologically brutal aspect of our shared human nature is so distressing that we often hide from it.

How do you hold onto the memories of what you’ve experienced and at the same time move forward in the affirmative life you have created for yourself, that you offer to other veterans and to viewers of your artwork?

KT: Just after high school I became captivated by the adventures of painters: Frank Benson’s duck hunting, Winslow Homer and his brother loose in the Adirondack wilderness, N.C. Wyeth and Frederick Remington playing cowboys out West, and so many more. I decided that I needed to do the same.

So, with a best friend, I hitchhiked to California from Maine. Then we rode a Greyhound Bus back to Thomaston from San Jose, California.

We met a lot of people, most of them were kind and generously supportive of our adventure. A few seemed criminally insane, causing us to use our Yankee wits to evade them. We encountered some very scary people.

Before being deployed to Abu Ghraib I had worked at the Maine State Prison Supermax. That job was my introduction to the care and custody of highly manipulative and sometimes extremely violent men.

Prior to that job, I had worked as a preschool teacher, where I learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (a theory explaining the physiological and psychological roots of human motivation). I didn’t know it at the time, but Maslow’s ideas would become a sanity playbook for navigating Abu Ghraib prison 2004, and, in a strange way, the vast VA Healthcare system when we returned home to Maine.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs was the measuring stick for me while at Abu Ghraib for how toxic that place was for our minds, bodies, and souls. His concepts helped me to realize that everyone at Abu Ghraib—the Us, and the millions of Them—were very scared most of the time. Uncertainty reigned, and a few real terror groups used that to their advantage, the “head-drillers” hiding in the nearby big cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad.

You ask about head-drillers: terrorists terrorize. While in Iraq I had the opportunity to meet a few up close. These were the kinds of human beings that would place a person with severe Down’s Syndrome or with a crippling physical condition on a busy highway to see if the up-armored HUMVEEs and convoys (driven by the newly deployed troops) would stop. If they did—KABOOM!

We never stopped for anything in the road in 2004.

I truly believe that because I was a trained artist and observer of the human condition, before being deployed to Abu Ghraib prison with a rifle, I was somehow pre-wired to process all that human trauma while it was happening in real time. I just surfed it all, not escaping a bit of it, swimming in the shared trauma versus carrying it all inside of me.

My squad’s motto was “ride the bubble.” We would experience the fleeting moments of sublime friendship, a shared tub of Belgian ice cream, juxtaposed with dysentery-like illness, and mortars. We laughed a lot then, that helps now, too. But bubbles break, then the war would creep back in. Being an artist helped me with that soulfully exhausting mental whiplash.

This image represents how I have reduced all those truths into my version of a creative Now.

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Kelly Thorndike, Yesterday (Today) Tomorrow, acrylic, 2022.

Yesterday is the crow on the left, and Tomorrow is the crow on the right. These birds represent time. They don’t have eyes, because time is all-seeing. Yesterday and Tomorrow had a baby—Today. This bird has blue eyes that represent the blue skies you see in my artwork. Today can talk with Yesterday and Tomorrow, but this bird cannot tell them what to do. Today can listen though. Today embodies my post-Abu Ghraib, new normal.

My treatment of the branches as barbed wire, combined with these three birds, is a metaphor for pushing beyond our human condition—beyond whatever holds us back from becoming the best version of ourselves.

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Kelly Thorndike, TBI Self-Portrait, watercolor, 14 x 16 in., 2015.

It’s a self portrait of me with a (TBI) and combat PTSD, and how I felt while trying to interact with people at art exhibits. The cracked glass is the metaphor for brain trauma. The wine, leaking onto the white linen, represented my feelings then, as I tried to explain Abu Ghraib prison for myself and others. The artwork, over-time, became an aid in the telling. —Kelly


Image at top: Kelly Thorndike, Winter Solstice in Sepia and Blue, mixed media, 4 x 6 in., 2018.