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Dubuque’s ‘favorite son’ comes back home, focusing on art

May 18, 2019
Christopher Billmyer works on an oil painting at Schmid Innovation Center in Dubuque on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Billmyer is a Dubuque native who lost both his legs in an explosion in Aghanistan. After graduating from University of Iowa this spring, he will return to Dubuque to open an art studio. (Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP)
Christopher Billmyer works on an oil painting at Schmid Innovation Center in Dubuque on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Billmyer is a Dubuque native who lost both his legs in an explosion in Aghanistan. After graduating from University of Iowa this spring, he will return to Dubuque to open an art studio. (Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP)

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Before he can apply paint to canvas, Christopher Billmyer must carry out the arduous work that makes such artistic expression possible.

He stretches the canvas over a large, wooden frame and pins the fabric into place. Next, he methodically applies a layer of primer to the surface.

When the preparatory work is complete, Billmyer is inspired by what he sees: A blank canvas with endless opportunities.

Nearly a dozen of Billmyer’s oil paintings are scattered about his rented space in Studio Works, an artist community located in the basement of Schmid Innovation Center in Dubuque’s Millwork District.

The creations are abstract and autobiographical. Billmyer thinks of his art as a “pictorial diary.”

“A lot of it is centered around my experiences,” he said to the Telegraph Herald. “There are some things that I don’t know how to talk about, but I can depict them through the art.”

Billmyer, 30, has no shortage of personal experiences from which to draw.

In the fall of 2010, Billmyer was injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in southern Afghanistan. He lost both of his legs in the blast.

The years since that fateful day have been marked by slow recovery and constant change.

Billmyer has spent the better part of the past three years at the University of Iowa, where he recently earned a bachelor’s degree. The graduation ceremony is soon.

Billmyer said he is happy that his long journey has brought him back to his hometown.

“It feels good and it feels right,” he said. “I’ve been bouncing around for the last 12 years or so. I feel like I am ready to be home. I am ready to settle down.”

Billmyer joined the U.S. Marines in 2007, just weeks after graduating from Wahlert High School. He completed training in California and was deployed on a pair of marine expeditionary units.

Billmyer’s third deployment took him to Afghanistan. On Oct. 23, 2010, he was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device in the country’s southern province of Helmand.

He lost consciousness and woke up four days later in Maryland, at the facility now known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The months that followed were grueling.

“It is a roller coaster ride,” Billmyer said. “You focus on winning the small battles.”

In May 2011, when he was deemed healthy enough to fly home, Billmyer temporarily returned to Dubuque and received a hero’s welcome.

He was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers when his plane landed and an escort of more than 200 motorcyclists guided him to his parents’ home.

His father, Jim Billmyer, fondly recalls the warm reception.

“It was pretty darn remarkable,” he said. “I will forever have a soft spot and be grateful for the way this city has adopted Christopher and made him its favorite son.”

That sense of compassion hasn’t waned as the years passed.

“To this day, when people see us at church or in restaurants, they ask about how he is doing,” Jim said. “That love runs deep.”

Billmyer returned to Walter Reed for two years before he permanently returned to Iowa.

Soon thereafter, he set his sights on furthering his education.

Billmyer attended Loras College for a semester and took classes at Northeast Iowa Community College for two years, focusing on completing general education courses.

In the fall of 2016, Billmyer and his service dog, Odin, moved to Iowa City.

Billmyer initially had planned to study technology and graphic design at the University of Iowa. That plan changed when he took a painting class in the spring of 2017.

He came to appreciate everything about painting, from the “gobby” consistency of the paint itself, to the way that art can “create another parallel world,” free of the limitations one encounters in real life.

“When you are painting, the door is open to anything and everything that you dream and think of,” Billmyer said.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Billmyer met his future wife, Jinjia, while in the class.

The two began dating about one month after they met and were married in July 2018.

As Billmyer embarks on the next chapter of his life, his mind often returns to the support he experienced in the past.

He vividly recalls the welcome he received in the spring of 2011. Moreover, he remembers the well-wishing cards and the staggering attendance at benefit events.

“There was so much support that my mind eventually turned to, ‘How do you give back?’” he said. “I feel that I have to do something for the community in return.”

By coming home to Dubuque and diving headfirst into his passion for art, he is hoping to give back to a community he feels gave so much to him.

With his space in the Millwork District, Billmyer is looking forward to continuing his pictorial diary, hoping that the personalized work will be a therapeutic exercise for himself and a form of education to others.

Billmyer also hopes to do commission work for others, creating art that can be displayed in customers’ homes or businesses.

Finally, he hopes to work closely with state and local governments, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs. He hopes his paintings can one day find a place in VA clinics and hospitals.

Those who know Billmyer best believe there is no limit to what he can accomplish.

And they already are in awe of how far he has come.

“There is so much pride you cannot even describe it,” said his mother, Cheryl. “He always looked at what he can do, not what he can’t. He has taken his life and changed it dramatically for the better.”

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

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