Accidental artist

He lost both hands in Iraq, but he found a new calling

Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2007

The dreamy pastels and oils of Massachusetts Army National Guard Sergeant Peter Damon hold no hint of the devastating injury that led to his transformation from helicopter mechanic to artist, or the effort it takes for him to simply hold a brush.

But after an accident in Iraq ripped off Damon's arms and killed his comrade in 2003, creating soft-hued seascapes and suburban scenes with a brush or pencil clamped in his prosthesis has helped this Brockton native cope with his mental trauma, overcome his injury, and reclaim his civilian life after the war.

"When I picked up a pencil [after the accident] I was elated that I could still do it. It gave me the strength to keep going on," Damon, 35, said yesterday at a gallery for beginning artists that he and his wife, Jenn, founded in Middleborough, where he now lives.

Today, Damon's art goes on display in the Rotunda of the US Capitol, where Senator John F. Kerry has invited Damon to show his work for five days beneath the frescoed canopy depicting President Washington ascending into the clouds. It is the first time that Damon, a self-taught artist, has exhibited his work in a public space.

"Peter is a living, breathing lesson about finding goodness and beauty in the face of loss," Kerry said through a press secretary Saturday.

Damon enlisted in the National Guard in 2000. In October 2003, when Damon was inflating a tire of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with high-pressure nitrogen at the US military Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, the tire and the rim of the wheel blew apart. The rim killed Damon's partner, Alabama Army National Guard Specialist Paul Bueche, who was 19 years old.

The force of the explosion tore off Damon's left wrist and his right arm above the elbow, and knocked him unconscious.

"When I came to I knew that something terrible had happened, and when I realized it was my arms the first thing that came to my mind was: How am I gonna work? Am I gonna be homeless? Then I found out that Bueche had been killed." Damon paused. "He was a lot younger than me. I think about it a lot."

While Damon spent more than a year recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the government supplied him with a set of prosthetic arms and a set of hooks. Damon chose to wear only one hook, attached to his left elbow.

"There's no elbow left to attach the hook to on the right arm," he said.

Born right-handed, Damon taught himself to be a leftie.

Damon was still at the hospital when he taught himself to use the hook to pick up and use a pencil, practicing every night in his room. When he returned home, he started working in pastels. Recently, he attended two workshops for amateur artists and started painting in oil and watercolor.

"Having these skills makes me feel more normal," Damon said. "It's been great therapy for me."

Damon's art displayed in the Rotunda this week is light, almost ethereal. One pastel, titled "Fishing Off Falmouth," depicts the back of a broad-shouldered man fishing on a rocky beach, his white T-shirt ruffled by a breeze. A raspberry cloud bisects the turquoise sky and a white sailboat slices through the dark ocean water.

The fisherman's arms are bent at the elbows. His hands are invisible.

Damon said he used to draw a lot as a child, and started drawing again when he deployed to the Middle East. Before he was sent to Iraq, Damon had spent five months on a US military base in Kuwait, where he had a lot of time to spare.

"I built myself a little drawing table, my wife sent me some colored drawing pencils, and I started drawing," he said. He lost his hands six months later.

After Damon returned from Walter Reed, a Taunton-based nonprofit organization called Homes for Our Troops built him, free of charge, a house designed in such a way that Damon does not need to use his hands. The Damons live there with their two children, Allura, 10, and Daniel, 5.

Without a mortgage, and using the insurance money Damon got from the government for his injury, the couple opened the Middleborough Art Gallery a year ago.

"He's done a beautiful job with that gallery," said Norma Brown, an artist who displays her work there.

When Damon paints, he picks subjects that "conjure good childhood memories," he said: children at an ice cream truck, a grandfather enjoying a day off. He does not paint war scenes.

"This might sound kind of corny after a near-death experience," he said. "In a way, it definitely is an escape from that stuff."

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