BETHEL – Among the artwork for sale at the 18th annual Bethel Art Fair this Saturday are several pieces formed under a brush in Baghdad.
Randall Rickards, a staff sergeant with a Maine Army National Guard unit based in Augusta, said he has done about 20 series of paintings on Iraq, with 12 on display at the Guard headquarters in Camp Keyes.
“It was like stepping into another dimension,” Rickards said of his time painting in a combat zone.
Rickards’ year-long tour in Iraq began in January 2005 with three months of training in Texas. In April of that year, he boarded a C-130 Hercules headed for the Iraqi capital.
“For 21 hours, the sun never set,” he said.
Working convoy security, Rickards was one of 17,000 soldiers at a forward operating base near the Baghdad International Airport. During his time in Iraq, he kept a portable watercolor kit to work with in his spare time.
The environment, he said, was one of intense heat, fleas, sandstorms and low-flying helicopters. Time available to e-mail family and friends was brief, missiles and mortars were falling within the base, and stress levels were high.
“I’ve seen best of friends, for years, for life, become enemies over there,” Rickards said. “You’re always on the alert.”
When he was painting, that all changed.
“I wasn’t in this depressing place,” Rickards recalls. “I was creating.”
Although he also sketched out several scenes of Iraq, Rickards’ watercolors focused on scenes from home. Working from photos, he created several paintings of boats peacefully docked in harbors.
The 48-year-old staff sergeant, who lives in Nobleboro, grew up in Andover. He graduated from Telstar Regional High School in 1977, citing teachers Betty Murphy and Tim Cavanaugh as two of his influences.
“I excelled in band and art,” Rickards said.
He began selling his artwork in high school, for $35 or $40 a painting. He recalls hitchhiking home one day with a pair of paintings. He was able to sell one to a hunter who picked him up.
Rickards’ sketching and painting continued during his four years of service in the Navy. He later joined the National Guard, spending time in Germany and Bosnia.
When he returned from his service in Iraq, Rickards used the sketches he had made to create acrylic paintings of scenes such as guard posts and Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
Many of these paintings form series with a common theme. His last paintings based on Iraq, titled “Collision Course,” recalls the time he was a passenger in a car that was nearly flattened by an M-1 tank.
“When the thing turned, it was 10 feet from us,” he said. One of the paintings in the series is based on a photograph he took during the incident, depicting the tank as seen from the interior of the car.
Another series focuses on a more unusual subject: portable toilets.
“Over there, Porta Potties are all over the place,” he said. The first painting shows a portable toilet in the middle of the desert. In the next, the toilet is surrounded by cement barricades. In the final painting, it is nearly obscured by fortifications. The series, he said, depicts the increasing need for security during the occupation of Iraq.
The disparity between Rickards’ location and the subject of his painting reflects a problem he said many returning veterans face.
“You always look forward to leaving, only to find out when you get home that you wish you were back over there,” he said. “You can leave Iraq, but Iraq never leaves you.”
The reason, he said, is due to the difficulties of adjusting upon return from the combat zone. Rickards said he knows of veterans coping with problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, anger management, road rage and health problems.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “The guys from my unit that are still in, they all have problems.”
Rickards encourages returning veterans to take advantage of the support and medical programs available, saying trauma received during the experience will only get worse. He finds his paintings have been a personal comfort.
“In some ways it’s like therapy,” he said, “because it helps you express what you saw.”
Art is not Rickards’ only creative outlet. He had a guitar shipped to Iraq, and wrote several songs during his service there. The effect was very similar to that of the artwork.
“It was like taking a break, almost like taking a vacation,” he said.
Rickards is writing a book titled “Sandstorms.” In it, a soldier goes AWOL from Iraq and gradually makes his way back to the United States. The soldier’s dialogue is mostly internal, and Rickards is weighing his options for the book’s finale.
“Right now he’s in Kurdistan,” he said.
Though he is still on active duty, Rickards will be medically retired from the Guard and will not return to Iraq.
The Bethel Art Fair takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday on the Bethel Common. Rickards will also display his work at upcoming shows and events, including a dedication service on Labor Day at the State Capitol in Augusta.