PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- At a time when the United States remains involved in two conflicts overseas, the National Constitution Center has unveiled a very timely collection of art -- created entirely by America's fighting men and women. It's an exhibit called Art of the American Soldier.
The Army first commissioned art during World War I to record history and to keep up soldier morale. Many of those art pieces have been in an Army basement away from the public until now.
Many Americans don't realize that some soldiers on the front lines of war didn't hold guns. They held paintbrushes and sketch pads.
"The Army for a very long time has actually commissioned artists to be in the field capturing soliders' experience," said Stephanie Reyer, director of exhibitions at the National Constitution Center.
Inside the NCC is the art of war. There are scenes of playfulness, such as funny cartoons or a sketch of children crowding around a soldier. But there are also scenes of blood and mangled bodies. There are watercolors of distant landscapes and iconic close-ups of horror. MORE: NCC's Art of The American Soldier
One of the Army artists was Paul Rickert, who grew up in Chestnut Hill.
"I haven't seen it since I did it," Rickert said of one painting.
Rickert was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, so he became a medic and an artist. He served his country with sketches and paintings, like this impromptu church service.
"The fellow is symbolizing the controversy of the war and not willing to totally participate but being there," said Rickert.
Roger Blum (he pronounces it "bloom") painted a burned out Vietnamese home.
"It impressed me emotionally to see these things on fire and families left desolate outside their burning house," said Blum.
Artists completed many of these paintings off the battlefield after spending time on the front lines with a gun or without.
"A paintbrush doesn't make a very good weapon, so we tried to stay out of the line of fire," said artist and Army officer John Wehrle.
Soldier Robert Knight said a paintbrush could capture the truth of a scene.
"My real reason for painting and drawing was to depict accurately what I saw," said Knight.
Soldier art was a perfect fit for the National Constitution Center, said president and CEO David Eisner.
"When our soldiers go into harm's way, the oath they take is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," said Eisner.
From World War I to the patrols of the Persian Gulf War and even our current conflict in Afghanistan, much of this art is on display for the first time, all of it unforgettable.
Art of the American Soldier is on display at the National Constitution Center. Admission for adults is $12. There are discounts available for military families. Active military and career military retirees get in free.
The National Constitution Center is also inviting former soldiers to upload their artwork about war to their website: http://constitutioncenter.org/artoftheamericansoldier/
Reported by Chris May, CBS 3
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