Peter Damon was serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq when a terrible accident resulted in the loss of both his arms. A practical man, he was at a loss as to what to do with his life, until he realized he could still pick up a pencil.
During his last deployment to Iraq in October 2003, Damon was severely injured. While he was repairing a helicopter, there was an explosion that killed his fellow soldier. Damon survived, but lost both of his arms.
Selflessly, he didn’t think about himself when he woke up. Before the military, he had been an electrician since he was 16, and had always worked with his hands. He worried about how he would support his family.
“The moment I woke up in the combat support hospital and realized what had happened to me, the first thoughts that sort of went through my head were like, ‘Wow what the heck happened? and ‘How am I going to make a living?'” Damon, 45, told Humanity.
“I had always made a living with my hands.”
Journey Toward Recovery
About a week later, Damon arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He healed quickly and doctors fitted him with two prosthetic arms, but he spent the next 15 months receiving treatment at Walter Reed.
“It was tough. I was away from my family,” he said.
His family was in Massachusetts. He could visit occasionally, but with two young children in school, he didn’t want to move his family down with him. So he elected to undergo the rehabilitation alone.
He’d never really thought about what would happen if he was injured during service, and now he had to face that reality. But knowing the VA would help support him financially gave him the breathing space he needed to heal and figure out in which direction his future lay.
Art as therapy
Damon has always enjoyed drawing as a hobby, and he used to draw while off duty during his deployments to ward off homesickness and while away the down time.
“After I lost my arms, I kind of had a sense of loss over that. And I didn’t think I’d be able to [draw] anymore either,” Damon recalled.
At the Malone House on the Walter Reed complex, Damon was teaching himself how to write with his new prosthetic arms. He would practice writing the alphabet in a little notebook. Then a thought came to him.
“Then the thought just kind of occurred to me like one of those lightbulb moments over your head that if I could draw letters, I could still draw shapes, and if I could draw simple shapes, then I could probably train myself to do complex drawings,” Damon said.
He started drawing again, and it became a good form of occupational therapy for him, both physically and spiritually. He was originally right-handed, but his left arm was the first to be fitted with a prosthesis, so he re-learnt how to draw with his left.
“Being able to develop a skill that even your average able-bodied person might say they can’t do was something that really struck a chord in me and gave me a direction to go in,” he said.
During his recovery, he would go out and wander around Washington, D.C. to see the sights, and he would visit the various art museums, most notably the National Gallery of Art.
He spent a lot of time in these museums, marveling over the American Masters, and that inspired him to pursue fine art. Specifically, he found a passion for painting. He began with watercolors and developed basic techniques from studying how-to books. Once he returned home to Massachusetts, he continued his pursuit.
Over the years, Damon’s skills have improved dramatically. Now, he produces a few dozen paintings a year, and sells them to clients. He also owns and runs his own art gallery called True Grit Art Gallery with his wife in Middleborough. They opened in 2015, and they showcase Damon’s art and the work of 20 other artists in the community.
Painting and Life
Painting is a reflection of Damon’s passion and joy for life, and his gratitude for being alive. His paintings capture everyday moments that we might overlook in our busy lives.
“It’s an homage to living and life to me. I pay a lot more attention to it now. There’s a lot of things I’m grateful for, and I try to express the joy that I am still here and still alive through my art. I hope that’s what people see when they see my paintings,” Damon said.
When someone is drawn to his work, without knowing that he is a disabled veteran, and has an emotional connection to his art, that’s the ultimate moment of satisfaction for Damon.
He had such an experience recently, when an art collector bought a painting from Damon. Initially, he thought the man had purchased the painting because he had heard about his story and wanted to support Damon.
However, the man genuinely seemed to love his new purchase. When he got home to New York, he hung the painting in his hallway next to three original Richard Hayley Lever paintings.
The man then texted a picture to Damon, which was really touching for him.
“He didn’t know I was a Hayley Lever fan or anything, and I was just so honored,” Damon said.
“I can’t tell you how much that blew me away that this guy thought that much of my work that he would hang it next to this American, who I consider to be an early 20th century American Master, and it’s the type of work that I’m completely influenced by, so it really kind of blew me away.”
Despite his success as an artist, Damon is modest about his own work. For him, his best work is probably still 10 years down the road, he says.
“We’re always improving as artists,” he said with a chuckle.