THOMASTON — Kelly Thorndike painted his way back to sanity. Now, the artist-soldier wants to help others do the same.

Thorndike suffered a traumatic brain injury in the war and has struggled with PTSD, he uses art as a way to help him and other veterans cope and is starting the St Georges River Veteran’s art project.

Thorndike, who received a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in Iraq in April 2004 as a member of the Maine Army National Guard, has begun the St. George River Art Expedition to bring veterans and non-veterans together for four-season art adventures on the Saint George River in midcoast Maine.

He also hopes to save a few lives along the way.

The river helped save him. Returning from Iraq with a brain injury, he struggled fitting back into societal flow. He came home a different man, forever changed and emotionally scarred and scrambled. There was a lot of help for wounded veterans with physical injuries, less so for those who suffered from brain injuries and mental health issues.

“When I came home, it would have been helpful to me if I had a big pirate scar running down my face to help explain what was going on inside my head,” he said. “I represent the injuries you cannot see.”

Thorndike’s motivation is simple: About 20 veterans kill themselves every day. In 2016, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times greater than for non-veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Art helped Thorndike find his way in the world as he recovered from the brain injury and other wounds he suffered when a bomb exploded while he was working as a guard at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. His pensive paintings of the river, its colors and tangled environs, which he showed to great acclaim last summer in a hometown exhibition at Tenants Harbor, come as close to showing people, in color and form, the things he saw and experienced on the ground in Iraq.

“We are studying if this shared creative experience between combat vets and the art community is beneficial to the greater national mental health dialogue,” Thorndike said. “It worked for me, it will for others too.”

The St. George River Art Expedition, which Thorndike formally launched in October with the introduction of a website and a first-phase fundraising campaign of $100,000, will give small groups of veterans and artists the chance to come together for days and weeks at a time, sharing meals and experiences as part of adventure-based art workshops.

He envisions the workshops will function a little like a military forward operating base. Participants will camp in large tents and will be mobile and stealthy, moving out in the early-morning hours on foot and in kayaks to be in place when the sun rises so they can experience the colors in real time. They will plan their missions and navigate with maps, charts and compasses and go to the difficult places wherever the art calls, on land and on water.

First Light by Kelly Thorndike
Image courtesy of Kelly Thorndike

The veterans will use their experience to safely navigate challenging environments and circumstances with efficiency and expedience, and the artists will use their aesthetic and instincts in search of destinations. They will come together to create and share an experience to help heal, nourish and expand the mind.

With the early fundraising, Thorndike will purchase a tent and art supplies. He wants to get the first troop of artist-explorers on the river this winter. “We are built like an outfitting company, and we will evolve our ability to produce outdoor art classrooms and art based on expeditionary learning,” he said.

Thorndike, 55, lives in Standish, but the St. George River is his true north. His roots here are as deep as the pig weed, alders and asters that choke the riverbank from spring to fall.

He grew up in Tenants Harbor, Thomaston and Port Clyde, working as a chef, illustrator and filmmaker – and as a sternman, prison guard and preschool teacher. At his core, Thorndike is an artist, and the St. George River Art Expedition is his way of bringing together his art instincts and his military training to a place he knows well and loves deeply. The art abilities of participants isn’t the point. It’s the experience and the ability to express feelings without words.

One of Thorndike’s mottoes is, “Your art matters.” It recalls a lesson from his earliest art teacher on the peninsula, who pointed students toward the river, confident the allure of the place, the majesty of its changing colors and the mysteries of its past would elicit some kind of emotional response.

Kelly Thorndike will purchase a tent and art supplies and hopes to get the first troop of artist-explorers on the river this winter. “We are built like an outfitting company, and we will evolve our ability to produce outdoor art classrooms,” he said.

The river offers the chance for veterans to clear their heads and find an outlet to express themselves. Working together with non-veterans, they will build a community, make some art and find a way to deal with the monsters in their head. Thorndike is confident in their success. He’s already booked a venue for an art show next summer.

During the most difficult days in Iraq, when Thorndike watched as bodies were blown apart, he blocked out the madness by closing his eyes imagining himself back home on the river, peacefully drifting as the current carries him past the muddy banks of Thomaston to the rocky shores of Port Clyde and the wild Atlantic beyond.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

To learn more and to donate, visit yourartmattersmaine.com

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